As the owners of Geechie Boy Mill,
farmers Greg and Betsy Johnsman are devoted to growing quality produce and milling the finest grits and cornmeal. On their Edisto Island farm about 45 minutes south of Charleston, the young couple rise early to nurture a variety of heirloom vegetables and specialty crops. They also operate historic, working mills, creating white and yellow grits that are used by some of the country’s top professionals, including a few James Beard Award-winning chefs in Charleston. Discover Charleston caught up with Greg to talk about his passion for the land, grits and family.
Grits are a Southern staple. How did you come to mill them?
I was raised in a small town in upstate South Carolina, and that’s where I met Jack Brock, a third-generation miller. He taught me the process of milling grits the old-fashioned way. I later discovered a 1945 mill and separator in Saluda owned by Lamar Berry. Mr. Brock encouraged me to purchase and restore the mill and separator, with the stipulation that the mill must be on display for the public and never be sold again.
You and your wife Betsy work together at the mill. How did that partnership come about?
Betsy comes from a family of long-time farmers. They own a large commercial tomato farm in the Lowcountry. We met at Clemson University, and we both have undergrad degrees in veterinary science. I have a master’s in agriculture education. When I met Betsy I wasn’t after the paper [degree], I was after a wife! After college, I hadn’t found a job. Her father said, ‘If you’re gonna marry my daughter, you need to find a way to make a living.’ So I got roped into learning the family business. We were running the family’s farmers’ market, and my wife [asked], ‘Why don’t we make a mill?’
Do you work directly with chefs?
Yes. Some of the award-winning chefs and restaurants in Charleston are FIG, Husk and Minero — a Mexican restaurant. They use some of our products to make tortilla flour.
When did you launch Geechie Boy Mill?
Around 2007 we restored a 1945 mill and started milling grits to supplement our farm income. Later we restored an 1847 mill. In our products, heirloom corn is used in the antique gristmills, which preserves the natural oils and flavors of the corn, resulting in the most flavorful grits. Our grits are non- GMO, gluten-free and stone-ground. Some of our specialty crops include heirloom indigo blue popcorn, heirloom Abruzzi rice and Jimmy red corn.
You have two young sons. Do you think they will pursue the family business and become farmers?
Hopefully, they will follow us, but we just want them to be happy. Working the land is hard. You throw it into the dirt and hope something comes up. In 2015, we got 26 inches of rain from one storm. We don’t complain. We try to work through it. In God we trust.
In 2016, Spoleto Festival USA celebrates its 40th season. From May 27 through June 12, more than 150 performances and events will be held in over a dozen venues — including the festival’s return to the refurbished Charleston Gaillard Center, which recently completed its extensive three-year renovation. The $142 million neo-classical facility encompasses a world-class performance hall reminiscent of Old World opera houses, and it is certain to add a new dimension to festivalgoers’ experience.
“For Spoleto Festival USA’s 40 years, we wanted to make the program extraordinary,” says Spoleto Festival General Director Nigel Redden. “Producing our first Porgy and Bess — a work based on Charleston-born DuBose Heyward’s novel [Porgy], set in Charleston and about Charleston’s people — was a celebratory choice. It is especially appropriate that this opera will be our first performance in the spectacular new Charleston Gaillard Center. A 1970 production of Porgy and Bess, staged in the then-new Gaillard Auditorium, is a long-remembered civic event representing unity, pride and artistic achievement that we hope to emulate. Beyond Porgy and Bess, there is a celebratory feeling through the entire program that features the signature Spoleto Festival USA blend of new works and young artists alongside established international visionaries encompassing opera, music, dance and theater. I hope people will find many reasons to be part of this landmark 40th year.”
According to Redden, June will be a time of celebration of the festival, as well as a time of reflection and remembrance for the city of Charleston. Just five days after the festival ends — on June 17 — the city will mark the first anniversary of the mass shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Fittingly, a number of performances acknowledging the event and commemorating the victims are scheduled. This includes the world premiere of a multi-media project conceived and directed by acclaimed visual artist Carrie Mae Weems and curated by Harvard professor Sarah Lewis entitled Grace Notes: Reflections for Now. The provocative performance includes music, text, spoken word and video projection. It also brings together a stellar cast of artists, including composers and musicians James Newton, Geri Allen and Craig Harris; poet Aja Monet; writer Carl Hancock Rux; and singers Alicia Hall Moran, Imani Uzuri and Esai Davis. Grace Notes will be performed Saturday, June 4, and Sunday, June 5, at the College of Charleston Sottile Theatre. A concert by celebrated jazz singer René Marie will also pay tribute to the city’s response to the tragedy by featuring a Spoleto Festival USA-commissioned song entitled “Be the Change.” René Marie will perform at the Charleston Gaillard Center on Sunday, May 29.
Other highlights include: the world premiere of Afram ou La Belle Swita, an “African romance” by Charlestonian composer Edmund Thornton Jenkins; U.S. premiere of the opera The Little Match Girl by contemporary German composer Helmut Lachenmann; U.S. premiere of comic Baroque opera La Double Coquette by Antoine Dauvergne; U.S. premiere of a new production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest by Dublin’s Gate Theatre; and U.S. premiere of Golem by theater company 1927.