Tracy Free ’08 and Ty ’07 Woodard are part of a 4,500-acre family farm in Darlington, South Carolina. They’ve taken just 1 percent of the cotton crop and turned it into a growing brand of blankets and throws.
Nat Bradford eased his pickup into a parking space at Moe Joe Coffee. He stepped out, straightening into a lanky, lean-faced guy in work-worn jeans and shirt, logoed visor and Blundstone boots, looking like what he is: a son of the soil. He had something for me.
Bradford dropped the tailgate, leaned in and wrapped his arms around his family’s past and future.
It was a watermelon the size of a toddler. Dark green, slightly ribbed along its oblong flanks, weighing about 30 pounds, a classic Bradford watermelon.
“This is for you,” said Bradford. “If I picked right, this will be the sweetest, best-tasting watermelon you have ever eaten.”
That night, my wife and I had watermelon for supper. We had to eat half of it just to get the rest into the refrigerator. The sweetness was superb, but it was the flavor that won out. The melon tasted like the watermelons I ate when I was a kid in the ’50s. That is the Bradford signature — a flavor of memories.
Big watermelons, big dreams
The Bradfords have been growing their watermelons for more than 170 years. In all those years, it’s doubtful they made enough from their melons to buy a new truck. Most of the melons were given away to friends and neighbors in Sumter, where the sandy soil is well suited for a melon patch.
Others did make money. In the late 1800s and early 1900s Bradford melons were sold commercially, as was seed to gardeners. Along came melons that were easier to grow, store and ship, pushing the big green melons back to family patches cared for by seed keepers who passed on their know-how and best seeds from generation to generation.
Bradford is the eighth generation in his line to take up the hoe. This time there’s more at stake than a good harvest. Bradford is sowing the seeds for his family’s future. He’s also determined that the Bradford watermelon will help to make the world a better place for thirsty people.
With two year’s experience growing melons part-time, the Bradfords are making a move. This summer, Nat and Bette Bradford and their five children will resettle from Seneca to Sumter. They are returning to the Bradford family farm to grow a life on 12 acres. They will raise watermelons and other crops sustainably, without irrigation and chemicals. They will sell some fresh watermelons and use the rest to make watermelon rind pickles, watermelon molasses and distilled spirits. Seeds from the best melons will be saved.
Money from fresh market sales will support Watermelons for Water. In its third year, the family’s foundation helps people in need of clean, dependable water. A project the Bradfords fund in Tanzania is well underway.
It’s a big dream, but Bradford watermelons are big melons.
Hanging on by a tendril
By the 1850s, the Bradford watermelon had developed a reputation for sweetness and for its edible rind. The crisp meat of the melon, ranging from pale pink to deep red imbedded with white seeds, was a sugary treat to eat fresh. The high-sugar content also made it a favorite for making watermelon molasses. A thin white rind, which turns translucent amber in cooking, made delicious watermelon pickles. “They are very nice and will keep for two years,” writes Maria Massey Barringer, in Dixie Cookery, or How I Managed My Table for Twelve Years: A Practical Cook-Book for Southern Housekeepers.
A melon of such quality did not just appear. It was the offspring of good stock and careful breeding. Nathaniel Napoleon Bradford was part of agrarian bloom in the South. Farmer-experimenters shared seeds and sought to raise fruits, grains and vegetables that were both hardy and flavorful.
Agricultural societies, such as the Pendleton Farmers Society to which Thomas Green Clemson belonged, published journals detailing their efforts and observations. Nurseries offered catalogs of their stock. More than simple inventories, nurserymen described and critiqued plants.
The research made its way to the marketplace. The Bradford became a late-season market melon sold throughout the South. It was a popular melon, but flawed in the eyes of truck-produce shippers who sought to expand their sales to other regions. Breeders developed “boxcar melons” with “rhino-rinds” that made them tough enough to be stacked nine high without crushing. The bowling ball watermelons lumped in cartons at grocery stores are the latest varieties bred more for commerce than flavor.
The Bradford withered in popularity. Once grown in seven states, by 1925 it was grown only in South Carolina, where it hung on by a tendril. One of our nation’s founding watermelons would have been lost had it not been for one man.
Fathers and sons, and coming full circle
Nobody knows how he came to be called “Chief,” the man who was Nat Bradford’s great grandfather, Linwood Bonneau Bradford. “I’ve known about him from family stories, but I did not meet him,” says Bradford. Family stories tend to deal with family doings — births, deaths, marriages, vacations — and not about growing watermelons. Fortunately, someone wrote about Chief and his watermelons.
Clemson Extension agent Jim Eleazer turned out to be a skilled writer, having a book published, 50 Years Along the Roadside. For 25 years before World War II, Eleazer was the Sumter County agent, where he became friends with Chief, who grew his late-season watermelons as a hobby.
“Others couldn’t do much with late melons,” Eleazer wrote. “Diseases would get ’em. But Chief had been mixing and selecting his melons for years, and had gotten one with considerable resistance to late ills.”
The rest of Eleazer’s story dwells on Chief’s generosity, filling the agent’s car with watermelons. But for Nat Bradford, the few sentences about his great-grandfather being a seedsman would become a guiding principle for his own approach to growing plants.
Chief’s son Theron — Nat’s grandfather — would play another part. He would teach young hands to fulfill the dream.
“I called him ‘Paa Paa,’” says Bradford, who loved to work with his grandfather. They would plant and tend the vegetables and flowers. Nat, more than his four siblings, took to gardening. He soaked up what Paa Paa knew about making things grow.The Bradford principles rest on abiding with natural forces, caring for the land and observing a divine plan for abundance.
Nat, the one with the “green gene,” as his family calls a gift for growing, learned to plant at least a mile away from neighboring melons, to prevent cross-pollination. Save seeds from the very best melons, preserving growth traits. Don’t irrigate or apply chemicals; instead cultivate plants suited to local conditions. Care for the soil, and the soil will care for you.
Paa Paa’s son — Nat Bradford’s father — left the farm to become a doctor. When he returned he moved his family to the city of Sumter. A dermatologist, Dr. Bradford’s connection to farming was treating the consequences — cutting away skin cancers from sun-rayed hands, arms, cheeks and necks. His children, like so many others, moved farther away from farm communities. Nat, a solid student and able athlete, went off to college, looking for a future. He did not know it yet, but he would come full circle.
Landscape architecture and love
“I tried a couple of majors, and then I took a course in horticulture, and I knew this is what I wanted to do,” says Bradford. “I was made for rowing and set my sights on the Olympics.”
While his dream of going for the gold faded, romance bloomed.
“My friends said he liked me,” says Bette Ritchie Bradford ’97. “I knew about him as the guy who always talked about his family’s watermelons.”
Before they could begin their lives together, Bradford had his degree to complete.
Majoring in landscape architecture, Bradford had an internship at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. There, he worked on his senior exit paper.
“I wanted to do it on the Bradford watermelons,” says Bradford. “I knew about Chief — we had Jim Eleazer’s book — but I didn’t know for sure much more.”
The gardens had a collection of old horticulture journals and catalogs. Bradford came across a document from the 1860s. It stunned him.
It was a vegetable critique, listing best choices for home gardens for that period. Bradford looked for watermelons. He found his name.
“Oh my gosh, I said to myself,” remembers Bradford “Could it be the same Bradford watermelon? What was the connection? Why didn’t we hear about this in the family growing up?”
Bradford began searching for more information. He hit a dead end.
“This was before Google,” says Bradford. “I couldn’t get online and see if there was some connection there or not.”
Life goes on, ready or not. Bette and Nat married. They started a family and Eco Art, a landscape design and installation business.
Twelve years passed. Meanwhile, Google blinked awake, ready to answer a world of questions.
In 2012 Bradford went to a sustainable agriculture conference in Greenville, reviving his quest. Was the watermelon mentioned in the 1860s the same one that his family had been growing?
“I knew in my heart of hearts it was, and now I had Google,” says Bradford. He didn’t find the answer. But he found someone who did.
David Shields, a professor at the University of South Carolina, is an international expert on Southern food history, particularly agriculture journals, catalogs, cookbooks and seed lists.
“He had his own list of vegetables that shaped the food waves of America and, in particular, in the Southeast,” says Bradford. “I figured this guy must know something, and so I sent him an email and introduced myself.”
Bradford hit the send key after midnight. When he woke he had mail.
“I had an email waiting for me at nine in the morning with this big, ‘Oh my gosh. I’ve been looking for this watermelon for the past 10 years,’” recalls Bradford.
Shields knew the heritage of the Bradford melon, providing new information. “He had every one of my forefathers mentioned, and who had handed down to who (sic). I didn’t even have that information. It was really cool.”Bradford learned his family watermelon was dropped from sight in 1922, when an Augusta, Georgia, seed company stopped carrying the seed.
“I know our family never shared in any of the commercial success of the watermelon because it was always kept local,” says Bradford. “The seeds had spread, migrated north and then lost appeal.”
Shields wanted to know from Bradford one thing — the only thing that mattered. Were there any Bradford watermelon seeds?
Bradford had some, but he would need seed from other years to blend the genetics for top quality melons. He went to Sumter to search where Paa Paa may have saved the seed.
“I went back to his old house that winter and found where he was keeping his seeds. It was the last of our Bradford watermelon seeds other than the ones that I’d been keeping for the last 20 or so years. He saved those from 1990 to ’93, and that’s really when I took over to breed and keep the line going.”
Summer 2013, Bradford planted two small plots, one in Sumter, the other in Seneca. He couldn’t have picked a worse year. It was one of the wettest years on record. Vegetables rotted in fields. Gov. Nikki Haley declared a disaster for growers. Bradford was nervous, but he trusted in the ways passed on to him.
“We plant 12 seeds in a hill,” says Bradford. “Then when they first sprout up, we thin them down to about five or six of the strongest plants, and then from there we thin them down to two per hill. It sounds wasteful, but what we did, in effect, is we selected naturally for the two strongest plants, per hill, for a cold, wet summer in South Carolina. That’s something that modern agriculture doesn’t account for, doesn’t take into account in their food model. But it works. We had over 100-percent yield, 465 watermelons out of 440 plants, which was tremendous.”
Delighted by the abundant harvest, Shields expected to see South Carolina’s heritage watermelon return to markets and kitchens. Bradford, unfortunately, had made other plans for the melons. They were bound for a distiller in Alabama.
Shields is devoted to restoring the crops and foods that nourished and flavored the South, especially the South Carolina Lowcountry. There is hardly a Charleston chef who hasn’t consulted Shields on vegetables, grains and meats of the Carolina Rice Kitchen, the cooking and ingredients of coastal Carolina. Shields called a friend who could save the watermelons from leaving South Carolina.
The friend, founder-owner of Anson Mills, has restored the good name of flavorful and nutritious grits and revived Carolina Gold rice, a dietary and economic staple of the coast until rice cultivation collapsed in the Carolinas. Glenn Roberts persuaded Bradford that there was a far better destination than Alabama.
Bradford hauled a trailer carrying 300 melons to the Holy City. Fifty of the melons — their seeds to be saved — went to McCrady’s, Chef Sean Brock’s highly rated restaurant in Charleston. Bradford still gets a kick out of the photo where the chefs and staff stacked the melons on the stairs to the kitchen. The pulp was boiled down to make watermelon molasses, the rind made into pickles.
The rest of the melons, selling for $20 apiece, sold out immediately.
Chef Forrest Parker drove from Greenville to buy Bradfords. In a comment connected to a digital news story about the melons, Parker raved: “I brought the first of these up to High Cotton Greenville from Charleston this morning. We tasted with the team this afternoon, and they were, in a word, revelatory. Completely fantastic. We all just sat there giggling like little kids. Just fantastic.”
Praise from chefs will help spread the word about Bradford melons. The local foods and farm-to-table trend continues to grow. Still, fresh watermelons sales are a seasonal and risky moneymaker.
Until they’re settled in Sumter, Bradford will continue his landscaping business. Like with most family farms, a job in town is essential to make ends meet. The goal is to go all in.
To have that happen, Nat and Bette Bradford will use the whole melon — from rind to seed.
The first of the Bradford family product line is watermelon-rind pickles. Other items soon will be available, including molasses and vinegar. Recently, High Wire Distillery in Charleston made a batch of watermelon brandy. Diversifying, Bradford collards will find a spot on the family farm. Other heritage produce is sure to follow.
“Here, a gift,” says Bradford, handing me a quart Mason jar of watermelon-rind pickles when I visited.
Grateful for the generosity, I counter with cash. Bette folds the money and nods thanks.
There are no sustainable farms without sustainable farmers.
Peter Kent is a news editor and writer for Clemson’s Public Service Activities.
Nine billion. That’s how many people will inhabit the earth by 2050. How do we feed nine billion people? How do we feed them well in a way that is both economically and environmentally sustainable? In a way that will make a profit and open new markets for farmers while leaving the planet a place where those nine billion people and their descendants will want to live?
These are some of the big questions being asked and answered by Clemson’s Sustainable Agriculture Program, the centerpiece of which is the Student Organic Farm (SOF), a 15-acre working organic farm and experiential teaching center dedicated to researching profitable, practical sustainable farming techniques that can benefit students and farmers across the state.
The history of the farm
In 2001, the area between Hartwell Lake and Perimeter Road known as “The Bottoms” was primarily being used to test row crop varieties and grow feed for livestock at the Clemson livestock farms.
A group of faculty from the College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences (CAFLS) suggested the land be used to create a small market garden that would produce fruits, vegetables and flowers for sale to consumers on campus and in the local community.
That group of faculty included Geoff Zehnder, professor of entomology in the School of Agricultural, Forest and Environmental Sciences (SAFES) and director of Clemson’s Sustainable Agriculture Program.“We secured a USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education training grant and started with four 100-square-foot plots for vegetable production and four small areas for growing medicinal and edible herbs, blueberries and beneficial insect-attracting plants,” said Zehnder.
In 2005, the SOF earned its organic certification from the Organic Certification Program in Clemson’s Department of Plant Industry. Today, with funding from grants and produce sales through its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, that former market garden is a productive organic farming operation and a showcase for sustainable farming techniques that advances Clemson’s land-grant heritage of teaching, research and extension and embodies Thomas Green Clemson’s founding vision of an agricultural college that would help the people of South Carolina prosper through instruction and outreach in the agricultural and natural sciences.
The SOF is located on land that is part of an area with a deep agricultural heritage and is now officially named “Calhoun Fields.” The land is said to have first been farmed by Cherokee Indians, then by John C. Calhoun and Clemson himself back in the days when a man’s gait was measured in furrows because he plowed his acreage walking behind a mule-drawn sodbuster. Back long before there was a university or before Clemson President Robert Cook Edwards (1958-1979) saved the land from inundation by Hartwell Lake.
Back in the days when the food we put on our tables and in our mouths was born of the sweat that stung our eyes and our own callused and mud-streaked hands.
What is sustainable agriculture?
Sustainable agriculture is more than just an abstract idea. The results of a strong sustainable agriculture operation are measurable as increased profitability, decreased farm debt and purchase of off-farm feed and fertilizer, and reduced reliance on government subsidies. This is accomplished by working with nature rather than against it.
On a perfect sustainable agriculture operation, there is no bare ground. Clean water flows through the farm’s ditches and streams. Wildlife is abundant and the farm landscape hosts a diversity of vegetation. Crops are diversified and plant and animal agriculture is integrated, reducing market risk and increasing profit. Solar energy is captured and used across the farm systems. The water cycle is managed in a way that reduces surface runoff, soil surface evaporation, and drought and flood incidence, and increases transpiration by plants and seepage into underground reservoirs. And a well-functioning mineral cycle moves nutrients from the soil through the crops and animals and back to the soil through on-farm feeding of livestock, thoughtful manure and crop residue management, and the use of catch crops to reduce nutrient-leaching losses.
The SOF aims to show Clemson agricultural and natural resources students and farmers across the state of South Carolina that, done right, sustainable farming can make more money for farmers, feed more people more efficiently, conserve natural resources and support surrounding businesses by circulating more dollars within the local economy.“The Student Organic Farm is a working farm,” Zehnder says. ìBut it’s also an experiential learning environment. It’s a place where we can demonstrate farming systems and strategies that are economically, ecologically and socially sustainable.”
Sustainable organic farming in action
Shawn Jadrnicek, a former farmer and South Carolina extension agent, manages the SOF’s day-to-day operations, including soliciting and managing volunteer and paid student labor, giving tours to curious farmers, students and extension agents, and designing and implementing many of the sustainable agriculture systems currently being used. The SOF is a sort of canvas for Jadrnicek’s farming imagination.
“That small market garden expanded and evolved over the years,” Zehnder says. “But Shawn’s work has really taken the farm to the next level.”
There are five greenhouses on the farm and each is oriented to take maximum advantage of passive heating and cooling techniques. A series of 55-gallon drums on the south side of one greenhouse collects solar heat during the day and emits that heat into the greenhouse at night.
In winter each solar-heated barrel produces over 9,000 BTUs of heat per day, which means that the heat generated from all the barrels is equivalent to burning one gallon of propane.
“The double-poly greenhouses with the 55-gallon drums give up to 13 degrees of frost protection without spending a penny on electricity or propane,” Jadrnicek said.
To augment the passive heating system, the greenhouses utilize a hydronic closed-loop active heating system that pumps warm water through pipes and a grid of tubing. Plant flats are placed directly on the tubing grid and kept warm by heat transfer. In this way, heat is placed exactly where it’s needed at the soil underneath the plants rather than wasting energy by heating the entire cavernous greenhouse space.
The greenhouses themselves are constructed of two layers of greenhouse plastic to reduce condensation and create insulation, and they are oriented to take advantage of the prevailing breezes. As the breezes move across the land, they are cooled by the ponds before entering the greenhouses. On extremely hot days, a recirculating fountain in an adjacent pond creates evaporative cooling. A series of solar-powered vents with expanding and contracting wax-filled switches allows hot air to escape and cool air to fill in behind it.
A rainwater collecting system captures water and feeds a cistern and a series of ponds used for irrigation and aquaculture. The ponds are strategically placed to control temperature and create microclimates. Plants and vegetation around the ponds capture and channel wind to the greenhouses. The ponds are also designed to create microclimates that provide a diversity of habitat for a variety of plants.
Some of the greenhouses partially encapsulate the ponds. Heat captured by the pond water is released into the greenhouses. Tilapia fingerlings are overwintered in one green-house pond and then transferred to outdoor ponds when the weather warms. The water in which the tilapia are raised, rich in organic matter, is used as fertilizer.
Laura Lengnick, director of the sustainable agriculture program at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, N.C., and lead author on the recently released USDA report, Climate Change and Agriculture: Effects and Adaptation, says that the SOF’s microclimate and keyline management practices offer examples of ways to create resilience to climate change.
“Shawn is doing some really groundbreaking work in managing microclimates and the large-scale movement of air and water across the landscape,” says Lengnick. “These features are unique among college farms.”
The SOF is also experimenting with a prototype soldier fly digester. The digester is used to recycle food and plant waste from campus dining halls and the farm. The soldier fly larvae consume the waste. The larvae are then processed in the Clemson Biosystems Engineering laboratory, where they are dehydrated and pressed for oil to make biodiesel. The remaining soldier fly meal can be used to feed chickens or fish. The digester is connected to a greenhouse. CO2 and heat from the digester are captured inside the greenhouse, while the greenhouse warms the digester and extends the life of the soldier flies and their larvae.“We estimate that the school could produce over 4,000 gallons of oil and $40,000 in high protein meal if we used all the food waste on campus in soldier fly digesters,” Jadrnicek says.
An enormous compost pile is cozied up against one of the greenhouses so its heat can help warm plants in winter. Water pipes run through the compost pile transferring heat into the hydronic system and reducing energy use.
The SOF maintains soil health by cover cropping rather than using fertilizers from offsite sources.
“Every part of the farm is cover cropped at some point during the year,” Zehnder says. “Cover cropping provides soil organic matter and nutrients and keeps fertilizer costs to an absolute minimum. Cover crops also suppress weeds and insects.”
Even the crop rows are planted with sustainability and efficiency in mind. They are planted on the high points of the fields so they can stay dry on the low-lying piece of land. The beds slope off the rows at a half-percent grade or less, allowing the fields to drain gradually without water loss or soil erosion.
Teaching and outreach at the SOF
The work that’s being done at the SOF isn’t theoretical. Like a stone dropped in a still pond, Jadrnicek and Zehnder hope the sustainable farming practices on display ripple outward.“The ultimate goal of the Student Organic Farm is to try techniques that will help farmers increase profitability and sustainability, and decrease farm debt. We also want to ignite the imaginations of the next generation of farmers,” Zehnder says.
Extension agents from across South Carolina visit the SOF to receive training in sustainable and organic farming practices. The agents then impart what they learn to producers interested in implementing sustainable farming practices and diversifying into emerging markets, including organic production.
“Producers are becoming more interested in organic and sustainable farming practices,” says Danny Howard, Greenville County extension agent. “The hands-on demonstrations we can provide through the Student Organic Farm are the best teacher of all. And current organic producers who are having challenges with weed, disease and insect control can learn how to solve these problems through the SOF’s outreach.”
During the 2012 Carolina Farm Stewardship Conference in Greenville, which was attended by more than 800 participants, the SOF conducted educational tours for agricultural stakeholders from across the Southeast.
Lee Meyer, extension professor in the University of Kentucky’s Department of Agricultural Economics, praises the SOF for showing farmers that sustainable farming systems are profitable and practical.
“When I talk about sustainable or organic farming alternatives, farmers often say to me, ‘That’s a great idea in theory, but you can’t do that it in the real world!’ Well, yes you can, and you can see it in action at Clemson’s Student Organic Farm,” Meyer says. “Geoff and Shawn listen to farmers’ problems and try to both find solutions and demonstrate their effectiveness.”
Students and faculty from a wide array of disciplines use the SOF for teaching and research. Horticulture professor Ellen Vincent takes her students on tours of the SOF.
“The Student Organic Farm is a great place for students to see cutting-edge sustainability practices in action,” Vincent says. “Geoff and Shawn have created a powerful environment for students to learn and grow.”
The SOF has also been the focus of Creative Inquiry projects in aquaponics, vegetable transplant, greenhouse design and architecture. One three-year Creative Inquiry project headed by associate professor of architecture Dan Harding led to the design and construction of several new structures at the SOF and the rebranding of The Bottoms as “Calhoun Fields.”
“When we were trying to understand the DNA of The Bottoms area, we decided that our agriculture programs are one of our strongest traditions,” said William Craig, a senior architecture major who worked on the project. “Agriculture is the reason we’re here in the first place. We wouldn’t have a Clemson University if Thomas Green Clemson hadn’t looked at those fields and imagined how they could be used to educate for the future. They are special, fertile fields. They are where the roots of this university lie.”
Organic produce for sale here!
The Student Organic Farm distributes organic produce and partially funds its research and outreach initiatives through its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. CSA shareholders pay an upfront seasonal membership fee that covers production costs in exchange for a weekly share of local in-season organic food.
For 2013, the SOF will offer two 14-week shares, the Summer Share (April 30 – Aug. 1), and the Fall Share (Aug. 27 – Nov. 28). Some of the produce that shareholders can expect to receive:
Arugula, beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, cilantro, collards, green onions, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, mustard greens, pac choi, radishes, spinach, Swiss chard, turnips
Basil, cucumbers, eggplant, garlic, green onions, herbs, okra, peppers, potatoes, snap beans, zucchini, yellow squash, sweet corn, Swiss chard, tomatoes, watermelons, cantaloupe
Arugula, basil, beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, collards, cauliflower, eggplant, garlic, green onions, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, mustard greens, okra, pac choi, peppers, radishes, spinach, storage onions, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, turnips, winter squash
Fruit shares are also available during the Summer Share period. Though the fruit is not certified organic, the blackberries are treated organically, while the peaches, harvested from a local farm in Seneca, are minimally sprayed.
Learn more about the CSA by visiting
www.clemson.edu/sustainableag/csaprogram.html or by calling 864-656-5057.