Author: Paul deVere | Photographer: photography by anne
Picture it. The early morning June mist rises off the ground on St. Helena Island. The sun is there, somewhere. Before the family, and a host of workers, is a year’s worth of planning and substantial investment. The family has done its best to feed the plants, to protect the plants, to make it to this moment, the harvest. So much could have gone wrong. So much could still go wrong.
For instance, the children and grandchildren remember the story. It was when Ross MacDonald Sanders was growing tomatoes and cucumbers. Cucumbers were more profitable at the time. Grandson, Ross Taylor, related the story his grandfather told. It was September, 1959. “Granddaddy had the prettiest crop of cucumbers he’d ever seen. They were so dark green, they were almost black. He walked the crop on Saturday, and on Sunday, Hurricane Gracie picked it. After that he said he was tired of cukes.”
Or another time. “The plants were three-quarters grown and we had a dadgum frost 21st of April that killed them. Next year, we had one on the 20th of April. Two years in a row. Nobody wanted to see us come into town,” Ross Sanders said. He could laugh at it now.
Ross MacDonald Sanders is the patriarch of the multi-generational Seaside Farm. In the early 1900s, his grandfather, Gustav “Gus” Sanders, began what turned into the first commercial tomato farm on the East Coast.
“My granddaddy was quite a land speculator. That’s how he got all this property on the island. He owned Dataw Island at one time. But if he could buy it for $10,000 and sell it for $12,000, he’d do it in a skinny minute. Of course, he kept this,” Sanders said, referring the thousand acres that make up Seaside Farm. About 400 acres are in tomatoes. “We don’t have any ripening room capacity to have any more than that. That’s the limiting factor,” Sanders explained. “We can raise more tomatoes, but we’d have tremendous expense to put up more ripening room.”
Depending on the season, Seaside Farm will produce between 15 and 20 million pounds of tomatoes. Through brokers SeaSide Farm hires, the round tomatoes will end up mostly on grocery store shelves and in salads in restaurants. They have also ended up in some rather exclusive places. Here’s a great trivia question: What do the QE2 and Seaside Farm on St. Helena Island have in common?
Answer: The following used to be printed on the great ship’s menu: “Made with Seaside Farm Brand tomatoes.”
“We had a great business with the Queens (QE2) going back and forth to Europe. They’d pick up a truckload of our tomatoes and bring them up to New York. They’d pay you a premium for good tomatoes. We always took great pride in Seaside Farm tomatoes—top of the market. It paid off when things got tough. We try to produce a higher quality tomato than anyone else because we’re a smaller farm than anyone else,” said Sanders.
St. Helena, located east and a little north of Beaufort along U.S. Highway 21, is, for most, a place people pass through, maybe on their way to Hunting Island State Park or Fripp Island. Yet it is truly hallowed ground. The island is the home of Penn Center, created in 1862 as one of the first schools for freed slaves. Today, it is a National Historic District landmark and the center for the preservation of the Gullah culture, a unique blend of language, an African heritage, food, and way of life experienced by African Americans on the Sea Islands of South Carolina.
The Sanders family has a tangential tie to the school. Back in the 1860s, the school’s founders, Laura Towne and Ellen Murray, lived in what is now called Frogmore Manor. Ross Sanders, along with his brother and sister, were raised there. The house now belongs to Ross’ daughter and son-in-law, Caroline and Bill Hatcher.
St. Helena was also hallowed ground for Gus Sanders and his decedents. Gus planted hundreds of acres there and on other parcels in Beaufort County. On his St. Helena farm, it was tomatoes and cucumbers in the spring, broccoli and lettuce in the winter. Gus and wife Bessie had eight kids. One of them, Ed, at the ripe old age of 17, moved to his father’s St. Helena Island farm.
“Reason we’re still in tomatoes is that Daddy had the packing house. We packed our own cucumbers and tomatoes in the spring,” Sanders explained. “We eventually, had to get out of the cucumber business because somebody in South Carolina got together a bunch of farmers and decided they could set the price on cucumbers. They set the price unrealistically high. Well, they got away with it for two years. It’s a matter of supply and demand. You cannot set the price. Well, in a couple years time, these boys down in Georgia figured out they could sell lower and pushed us out of the cucumber business,” Sanders said.
His father also put in a winter crop of broccoli. But that unofficially ended one December day when Ross’ young wife, Martha, found herself alone on Christmas. “Can you visualize me out here with no one around… and two tiny little babies at Christmas? I had no Christmas tree. This cousin of Ross’ and a friend of his (Marvin Dukes, now a prominent Beaufort attorney), said ‘We’ll get you a Christmas tree.’ They went out in the back fields and brought a scraggly looking thing. Ross got me a tree,” Martha said, still laughing with her husband over the memory.
“We never could make any money on broccoli anyway,” Ross added.
The “out here” Martha was referring to was a somewhat isolated 38 acres on Station Creek, where the Sanders family live. Today, past a grove of pecan trees, a drive leads to a row of homes that look out across a long stretch of water, with a view of St. Phillips Island, owned by Ted Turner.
“We had to grow our own neighbors,” Martha said. The “neighbors” include sons Mac (Ross Macdonald Sanders II) Gray (“Gator”) and daughter Lea (Margaret Leonora Sanders Taylor). In 1991, the “neighbors” took over Seaside Farm. Mac is president, Gator is vice president, and Lea does all the accounting. Ross Taylor, Lea’s son, said of the titles, “They literally drew straws. It just worked out that way.”
Mac, Gray, Lea and young sister Caroline, all went to Clemson. The grandchildren have followed suit. “We now have three grandsons and two granddaughters there (at Seaside Farm),” Martha said.
Other than Seaside Farm “round” tomatoes, the family also grows grape tomatoes, and, for cousin Christy and husband Brad O’Neal, who have Coosaw Farms up the coast, there’s a big watermelon patch. “We just grow them,” said Edward Taylor, one of the five grandchildren who help manage the farm. Like the rest of the family, Edward can tell you everything about tomato farming, about the harvest, about tying off the vines on three separate and specific times in the growing season as the tomato plants grow. About soil temperature and nutrients. How timing and weather are everything. And the fact that he didn’t like eating tomatoes when he was little (a fact older brother Ross still teases him about), but has a true appreciation for them now.
Edward drives a truck with a license plate that tells you he is part of Seaside Farm and member of the extended Sanders family. It has the word TOMATO on it and a number. There is TOMATO and TOMATO 1, on vehicles belonging to Ross and Martha Sanders. Sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, all sport the word that means so much to the Sanders.
Ross Sanders said the reason tomatoes do so well on St. Helena is the land and weather on the Sea Islands. “They warm up a little ahead of the inland areas,” he explained. “This sand is very suitable for raising tomatoes. As long as we got water, we’re in good shape.”