By Tess Malijenovsky
About a 60 acre plot of history grows out on St. Helena Island by the name of Dempsey U-Pick Farms. The local farm, now passed along three generations, began in the 1950s when Davis Dempsey’s father bought the plot of land and built a house for his family. Davis took over in 1968, continuing the family tradition of running on tomatoes and cucumbers, and the “u-pick” came about a decade later with the 1978 trucker’s strike.
“We had tomatoes in the field and we couldn’t ship them because the truckers went on strike,” says Davis. He remembers giving his son Davey a small field patch off to the side for growing tomatoes at age 9. “He went down there and sold his first 120 buckets of tomatoes and got them all in one dollar bills. He came back home with a stack of bills, I tell ya’. ”
Ever since, customers have made their way to the farm to pick their fresh vegetables and fruits. Just ask Ed Craft of Dawtaw Island who’s been coming to the farm for 11 years. “I love Dempsey — good and good for you,” says Ed. “They have a better selection than anybody else, and of course this double crop is outstanding. I just pine for strawberries coming up in March.”
The double crop, or second crop, is the fall crop — a variety of winter squashes, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, watermelons, joi choi Chinese cabbage, eggplants, okra, sweet corn and, of course, pumpkins. This is the Dempsey’s third year growing pumpkins, a challenge most South Carolinian farmers won’t trouble with on account of the disease that plagues the crop.
“Fall is hard,” says the professional. “You have so many things against you in the fall: hot weather, disease, most bugs and worms. You make a fall crop, you’re lucky. You’re real lucky.”
There’s still time to come out for fresh pickings, but it all depends on the first winter frost, so call ahead. “You win some, you lose some, that’s farming. The good Lord blesses everything and he controls everything,” says Davis.
Yet with 60 plus years of farming experience, the Dempseys manage to harvest a variety of fresh vegetables every three to four days. Davis and son Davey Dempsey say the same thing about their career in farming: “I just didn’t know nothing else to do.”
But for anyone who has ever managed to grow a plant from a seed, let alone a variety year after year, the miracle of growing is a long education.
The strawberries are already being planted for the spring. The pumpkin patches are being cleared this November to make way for next year’s watermelons. And come the first winter frost when second crop dies, the farmers will repair their equipment, work the soil and plant cover crops like snap peas and sudan-sorghum grass. Not only does the tall sudan-sorghum grass replenish soil with nutrients, but it also makes up an eight-acre maze for family exploration.
“The maze and hayrides are for the children and families,” says Davey, standing out on the pumpkin patch with Riverview Charter School’s second graders. The kids are devouring uncooked sweet corn and running all over the patch looking for their perfect Halloween pumpkin.
Hiking over the earth and pumpkin vine with nothing in sight but the tree line and sky, it’s to no one’s surprise on Dempsey Farm that sunny afternoon why Mr. Davis Dempsey would say, “My favorite part [of farming] is going on the tractor and getting in the field.”