FARM, which serves marinated octopus with ramp kimchi and lamb necks over Carolina Gold rice middlins, has consistently referenced the South’s agrarian past since its opening in 2016. But the Bluffton restaurant’s latest throwback tactic is giving some labor historians pause.
Like restaurants across the Lowcountry, FARM has struggled mightily to find and retain employees, a problem that chef and co-owner Brandon Carter believes is exacerbated by the high cost of housing in the surrounding area. So Carter recently came up with a scheme to both reduce workers’ rent burden and meet the restaurant’s need for help on its 5-acre Pritchardville farm.
“We put a couple of homes on the property, and our sous chef is now living out there with his wife,” Carter says. “He tends to the chickens out there, and he picks herbs.”
In exchange for renting manufactured housing from FARM for $1,100-$1,200 a month, which Carter estimates is about 30 percent cheaper than market value, employees are expected to contribute agricultural labor. The idea, Carter says, is to increase production so the farm becomes a more reliable revenue source: Its eggs and vegetables now go almost exclusively to FARM.
Eventually, Carter adds, the restaurant hopes to adjust its program so workers can earn equity through their labor.
Still, according to a press release, the arrangement as it stands “is mutually beneficial and gives the employee a deeper appreciation of the concept.”
Yet, in South Carolina, the practice of working fields that belong to someone else has a disturbing resonance. “I can’t condemn them without knowing more, but there are all kinds of opportunities for abuse,” says Kerry Taylor, an associate professor at The Citadel who’s writing a book about the American labor movement.
Because of the rural setting, and the employees’ lack of a legal claim to the crops they raise, FARM’s setup viscerally recalls sharecropping. That system, developed after the Civil War, was supposed to provide cash-poor land owners with a workforce and give former slaves the chance to earn a living: Theoretically, sharecroppers would receive a portion of the farm’s profit after harvest.
“I didn’t really make that connection but, yeah, there are similarities in the model,” Carter said when asked about the parallels. “I guess there’s a reason why things happened in the past.”
As University of Georgia history professor Cindy Hahamovitch, author of The Fruits of Their Labor: Atlantic Coast Farmworkers and the Making of Migrant Poverty, 1870-1945, says, “There’s nothing inherently exploitative about sharecropping: It’s just a way to get paid for your crop when you don’t have capital.” But in the American South, unscrupulous landlords and the laws that favored them turned sharecropping into a brutally oppressive system that kept black and white farmers alike mired in poverty and powerlessness.
Carter continues, “Whether things were done the right way before or not, the economics haven’t changed. They’re the same now that they were before. We’re just doing it in a much more humane way, with a greater benefit to our team.”
Both Taylor and Hahamovitch say a better historical analogy for FARM’s arrangement involves the mill towns associated with the Carolinas’ textile industry, since it features the workers’ boss doubling as their landlord.
From Newry, S.C. to Bynum, N.C., mill owners in the early 1900s built cottages for workers and their families. As Taylor explains, “The company would provide housing for the family, but the company also provided the church and the store. As long as there was work and the mills were profitable, many rural white Carolinians found this to be an advantageous situation. But as soon as there was any kind of downturn, the paternalism certainly worked to the mill owner’s advantage.”
Hahamovitch also believes FARM’s approach is fraught. “There are all sorts of ways in which it’s a disaster waiting to happen,” she says. But she’s heartened by the restaurant owners’ willingness to experiment. During the New Deal, a similar effort to create housing communities for American farmers — arguably the nation’s first food workers — was undone by politics.
“They all got accused of communism, and it disassembled,” she says. “But this could be a model, because how do you make agriculture pay? It never will on its own.”