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.