Trust saves farm to grow sustainable agriculture

The East Cooper Land Trust plans to retain ownership of the 94-acre Thornhill Farm in McClellanville and work with partners to demonstrate sustainable agriculture.

The East Cooper Land Trust hasn't had many breakthrough conservation victories in the 12 years since its founding as the Mount Pleasant Open Space Foundation.

But the trust's recent $1.5 million purchase of the 94-acre Thornhill Farm in McClellanville could be the catalyst the nonprofit needs.

Funding for the purchase was made possible through the Charleston County Greenbelt Program and the South Carolina Conservation Bank, according to East Cooper Land Trust Executive Director Catherine Main.

Main said the nonprofit intends to maintain ownership of the farm, set up an office on the land and lease acreage to farmers and other partners who want to practice or teach sustainable agriculture.

"This is the biggest project the East Cooper Land Trust has done in years," said Main.

In addition to ownership, the land trust has placed a conservation easement on the property to ensure that no further subdivisions or other alterations are made that could devalue the ecological integrity of the farm.

Main said the nonprofit envisions the farm as an opportunity to collaborate with an array of groups, from McClellanville residents and the Gullah-Geechee Commission to Lowcountry Local First, The Green Heart Project and Grow Food Carolina, as well as schools.

"We are having serious conversations with Clemson University which is interested in running a sustainable agriculture program at the farm," said Main, adding that the Clemson Extension Service also is interested in offering public education programs and workshops.

"This (farm) could be a national model for sustainable agriculture and living and it all starts with conservation," said Main, of the land that connects to Francis Marion National Forest and provides buffers to 1,000 acres of land preserved by the Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy.

Produce from the farm could also provide residents of McClellanville, where the closest grocery store is 19 miles away, with a place to get fresh, locally grown food.

Land Trust Board Member Bill Eubanks said the preservation of Thornhill Farm as a working and teaching farm will provide opportunities to demonstrate how farms can be both sustainable and profitable. That, in turn, decreases the threat of losing other farms to "incompatible development," such as housing subdivisions.

"In our society, people have lost their connection to the land. Farms and farmers are no longer a national treasure. By saving this farm we hope to plant a seed that reconnects people to the land and our agricultural heritage," said Eubanks.

Thornhill Farm has been managed as a teaching farm since 2006 and has been important in the growing "farm-to-table" movement in the Charleston area, serving many local restaurants.

Main said historical and current land management at Thornhill provides an excellent demonstration for farmers and landowners of innovative production and conservation practices in the Lowcountry, including organic production, crop rotation, cover-cropping, pollination habitat, rotational grazing, forage planting, and animal-integrated silviculture.

While the land trust originated to preserve urban green space, Main sees protecting rural lands nearby as critical.

"Traditionally we've been an urban land trust and have focused on parcels that are inside the urban growth boundary. We are now also focusing on the rural communities surrounding the urban area so we can proactively conserve more natural areas."

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.