On Johns Island, many families’ roots run deep. For the Fields family, this is true in every sense of the word: Robert Sr. was born in 1911 and came to Johns Island from Cottageville in the 1920s. In the thirties, he and his wife Nancy started a home and a farm on 11 acres of land across the street from where today’s market stands. Together, Robert Sr. and Nancy had 8 children and built a life together living off the land.
Over the years, they expanded: growing vegetables and raising pigs and other livestock. They opened a gas station and grocery and had a smokehouse. The home Robert Sr. and Nancy raised their family in was built in 1947 using wood reclaimed when the old Roper hospital was torn down. Today, Mr. Frederick Fields, one of Robert Sr. and Nancy’s children, recalls pulling nails out of the boards and straightening them to reuse in building the new family house.
Frederick remembers that back then, there were farms and not much else on Johns Island. He recalls back before Kiawah and Seabrook Islands became the populous resort towns they are today, when people would come all the way from Summerville to buy boiled peanuts from his family’s store and he would travel all the way to New York at 16 years old to sell watermelons grown on his family’s farm. Most importantly, Frederick also remembers the sense of community amongst the farmers on Johns Island and the pride and benefits of living so closely with the land: “[Growing up], we were never hungry. We ate off the farm. And we were healthy too . . . It would be good if we could all get back to the land again. A lot of the time you get too far away from it.”
Today, the Fields family is still farming the land and woven into the community here. Robert Sr. and Nancy instilled in the family the importance of their Gullah-Geechee heritage and farming-- traditions that have carried on through their children and grandchildren, many of whom still live on the family land and are involved in the farms and businesses today. Frederick Fields started the market that today stands off River Road and the deli and bakery in the original gas station building across the street. Frederick’s nephew, Cedric, manages the deli and Frederick’s sister, Anna, runs the convenience store there.
Frederick’s brother, Joseph, became a full-time farmer in the seventies but saw the importance in organic farming practices, which he began adopting over a decade ago. Today, his 35-acre farm is certified organic. Robert Sr.’s grandson, Mr. Devonne Hammond (pictured at top), emphasized that organic farming is more than a fad: “Doing something on the farm, it gives a different perspective. You can see exactly where we come from . . . We use organic practices because it’s healthier and everyone wants to have a level of trust that what they are putting in their bodies is actually the best thing they can put in their bodies . . . We want to give them the best possible product at the end of the day.”
The family also believes in giving back to the community. They participate in a food ministry through their church, Wesley United Methodist. Joseph Fields partnered with Earth Heart Growers, a program that exposes Charleston County School District students to agriculture, cooking, and related STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) projects. The program provides students with hands-on learning opportunities and facilitates a community supported agriculture (CSA) program. Joseph has mentored and partnered with others in the community along the way, supporting robust educational and community agricultural programs.
Increased development and suburban spread from Charleston, Kiawah and Seabrook all threaten to change the face of the sea islands and the farmers who live and work here. It can be harder to find workers to help on the farms as well. The Fields family recognize the challenges of preserving heritage in the changing landscape of the sea islands and are actively working to protect it. They served as hosts for a “homecoming” episode of PBS’s Nourish, which focused on Gullah-Geechee food traditions and pit BBQ (watch the video online). They were also recently featured in a USA Today article highlighting Gullah culture and those striving to preserve it.
Despite the challenges, the farm is flourishing and you can stop by the Fields Farms Market to purchase vegetables that were pulled from the ground just yards away. You can meet members of the extended Fields family at farmers markets across the Charleston area. Stop by the deli for delicious dishes like pork chops and shrimp, accompanied by vegetables grown on the farm. Frederick says they are constantly looking to the future, evaluating the possibilities of building hothouses for longer growing seasons or opening a flea market in the space adjacent to the market.
In the end, the Fields’ hope is that everyone understands the importance of living closer to the land, both for better health and a stronger community. No matter the challenges or the changing landscape around them, the Fields family is not planning on going anywhere. Devonne, who left his corporate job a handful of years ago to work full-time in the family business, sums it up perfectly: “At the end of the day, this is home.”