Consider this plan for your next South Carolina vacation: Eat your way across the state. Stop at a rice or tea plantation. Buy boiled peanuts at one of the stands that dot country roads. Visit a farm to pick your own strawberries or walk through a peach orchard.
Try the blue cheese made at Clemson University or one of the many cheeses made at other farms. Feast on fresh shrimp just pulled from the water along the coast, and buy some crab cakes to take home. Take home a bag of grits or flour straight from the mill.
At Happy Cow Creamery in Pelzer, farmer Tom Trantham said top sellers are milk, butter and cheeses. His customers love his whole milk, strawberry and chocolate milk, and buttermilk. In addition to all pure cream butter, Happy Cows sells more than 70 varieties of cheese, and recently added sour cream and cottage cheese.
He said it's what his cows are fed that make them happy.
"It starts at the soil, and here's a little saying we like: ‘Don't worry as much about what you eat as what you eat eats.' We haven't used any chemicals or chemical fertilizer on our farm in over 21 years."
The store on his farm also carries products from neighboring farms: free-range chickens and eggs, lamb, pork, as well as ground chuck and sirloin from Happy Cows. Dairy tours are offered on certain days during the summer.
Just outside Columbia, country-style hams, bacon and sausage are the specialty of Four Oaks Farm. The Mathias family has been in the farm business for about 80 years, Fred Mathias said, and orders are shipped to every state. Visitors at the country store enjoy remembering the way life used to be.
"We think we have something a little bit unique, the old-style products that we process the old-time way," Mathias said.
The store also carries jams, jellies and candies, as well as in-season produce from nearby farms.
At McLeod Farms in McBee, the strawberries are getting ripe right about now. You can pick your own or buy them pre-picked.
But the peach is the queen of this farm, with a 650-acre orchard. South Carolina grows about one-fourth of the country's fresh peaches, according to the S.C. Peach Council. The season runs from late May through August.
McLeod Farms operates its roadside market year round. In addition to produce in season, shelves are filled with jarred products such as peach salsa and preserves, homemade peanut butter and fresh-baked breads and sweets.
Like several other farms in the state, McLeod also offers attractions tied to the season and area's history. McLeod puts on festivals throughout the year - a strawberry festival in May (on May 15 this year), a peach festival in July and a fall festival in October. An antique museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day except holidays and features antique farm equipment and cars.
Rice was grown throughout the Lowcountry's swamplands in the 1700s and 1800s, but the end of slavery and a series of hurricanes ended commercial rice production. But rice fields are growing again today at Carolina Rice Plantation, on the Great Pee Dee River near Darlington.
Two types of rice are grown, comptroller Harold Kelly said.
"Our aromatic rice smells and tastes like popcorn or roasted nuts," he said. "We have a lot of folks who call it the popcorn rice."
The other type, Carolina gold, is the type of rice grown in the state years ago. Kelly describes the plantation's "farm-gate-to-dinner-plate" approach to farming.
"We plant it, we nurture and water it, we raise it, we harvest it and dry it down, mill it, bag it, and it's ready for sale," he said. "No third-party people allowed. It's all done on the farm."
Also grown on the farm are corn, which is ground into grits and corn meal, and cow peas, perfect for hoppin' john.
While Carolina Rice Plantation isn't staffed for tours, people stop by all the time, Kelly said. You can buy rice there, online or at numerous shops around the state.
On Wadmalaw Island, south of Charleston, Camellia Sinensis tea plants are grown at the Charleston Tea Garden and used in American Classic Tea, the only tea grown in America. Not only can you get a cup of tea, but you can take a tour of the factory and learn how it's made. You also can take a trolley tour of the tea fields.
American Classic Tea is sold at the plantation, online, in numerous South Carolina stores and in 17 other states.
So the next time you want to plan a visit to South Carolina, think about an eating tour. These farms, and many, many, more, showcase the bounty of South Carolina. You can even impress your friends by cooking an all-South Carolina dinner when you get home. Enjoy!
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