“You can just follow me around while I work and we can talk, if that’s okay,”
Chris Miller said, between breaths. He is in the middle of breaking down cardboard boxes to embed in the soil below our feet, part of a biological process that enables the plants to soak up the maximum amount of nutrients. A man constantly on the move, Miller has no time to sit down for an interview. Beginning at sunup, his day is set in motion.
Miller operates Sow Seasonal Farm in Park Circle, North Charleston, a sustainable farm he began building in early 2015. Sustainable farming uses techniques that protect and enhance the environment, community and health of the surrounding community. To Miller, sustainable means edible and regenerative. It means growing healthy food for the people in his community. It means making sure no one is hungry.
Miller grew up with his single mom in Tampa, Florida, where he learned how to cook and feed himself. Always outdoors, he developed a connection with conservation and a deep appreciation for the natural environment. “In a lot of ways, that’s kind of what raised me,” Miller said. “It taught me a lot about life.”
In and out of school, Miller could not quite figure out where his life was headed. “I could never get a foothold on what I wanted to do exactly,” he said. “I was always interested in food, philosophy and science.” At age 22, he started managing restaurants and soon after left the sunshine state for Tennessee. There, he got his “business chops” helping his creative friends with their various endeavors, from art shows to radio time.
Miller is captivated by creativity.
“I’ve always been attracted to people doing things on their own,” he said.
Eventually leaving Tennessee for Columbia, South Carolina, he took a job at Salsarita’s Fresh Cantina. While Miller enjoyed restaraunt work, he was still not wholly at peace.
“I look around and I can’t tell you where any of the food is coming from or who’s growing it,” he recalled.
This unsettled Miller. He wanted to be able to tell customers about the food they were consuming, and when he could not, he felt responsible. His quest for peace led him to Charleston, South Carolina, where he started as a waiter at The Grille and Island Bar on Folly Beach, and as a farming apprentice in Lowcountry Local First’s Growing New Farmers Program. Growing New Farmers paired him with Jim Martin, the owner of Compost in My Shoe and Miller’s mentor for two years. Eager to learn, Miller grasped every opportunity.
“I was that guy,” he said. “I showed up for everything.”
Being “that guy” paid off. When his supervisor moved on, Miller slid into the position of teaching plot manager alongside Rita Bachman, who owns Rita’s Roots Backyard Harvest.
“This quote has shown up a lot,” Miller said, “but it was like, ‘I learned yesterday what I teach you tomorrow.’ I was devouring information… learning and giving it right back.”
Miller taught for two years before a taco craving led him to Básico, a Mexican restaurant in North Charleston. After learning Básico grows its own food, he introduced himself to the chef. From there, he met the owner. And from there, he met Evan Fuller. Fuller collects entrepreneurs for Jamestown Properties, a company that invests in real estate with an emphasis on conservation. Wasting no time, they asked Miller for his business plan. Sow Seasonal Farm was born.
“I realized that the traditional way of farming… growing food just to sell it to restaurants, is not what I’m interested in. I’m interested in healthy food for communities and for people who need it,” Miller said.
So he put a farm in the center of the Park Circle community.
“I quit all my jobs,” Miller said. “Got rid of all my bills. Got rid of my phone. And I got on a bicycle.”
No car, no phone, Miller flies by the seat of his bike. He has accounts with restaurants and families, delivering the vegetables directly with the help of his faithful intern, College of Charleston senior Jaime Stacy, and occasional volunteers. All of Miller’s deliveries are within bikeable distance, the food grown in the soul of its consumers. With 30,000 people living in Park Circle, Miller is filling a necessary role. This community has zero access otherwise to locally grown, healthy food. The people comprise a community that, according to Miller, is often overlooked.
Overlooked, that is, until he arrived.
During the off-season, Miller keeps himself busy. Today, he is building a sustainable garden for a family in Park Circle. Each plant is multi-purpose, feeding life both indoors and out.
“Let me look to the soil, to the birds, to the bees,” he said.
Miller is also implementing a closed water system around the garden, a sustainable way of eliminating mud and creating a passive irrigation system. Through landscaping, Miller realized that he, too, is an artist. The earth is his canvas.
“I’m doing this in a way that makes everyone happy,” Miller said.
The work Miller does goes beyond the creation of sustainable landscapes. He is creating a sustainable community, starting with its roots: the children. He works with the Carolina Youth Development Center in Park Circle and with his guidance, the children are building their own garden, fostering creativity, self-empowerment and environmental awareness. Miller develops weekly projects for them; one week, the children learned how to save seeds. Through this, not only did they learn sustainability in terms of the land, they learned about the importance of sustaining themselves.
“When I started thinking about doing this for the long haul,” Miller said, “I considered what the appeal was. I thought and meditated about this for a long time. I concluded that it is about individual empowerment. The simple act of putting a seed in the ground and waiting for it to grow, nurturing it and ultimately being nourished by it is nothing short of life-changing for those who embrace the beauty of life cycling and participating in the whole ecosystem. I think that deep down, everyone is amazed by this beautiful blue space marble. I knew then that I wanted to share and teach people going through difficult transitions.”
A little-known fact: North Charleston has amazing soil. Now all Miller has to do is find all the places food can grow.
“If my neighborhood isn’t healthy, then I’m not healthy,” Miller said. “The whole world is one big community. If everyone, everywhere does not have access to healthy food, then I’m not living on a healthy planet.”
*This article first appeared in the February 2016 issue of The Yard