By Beth Brown Ables
Photos by Jessica Barley
It’s a golden Southern morning and blessedly cool as Jon Stauffer heads out early to survey his cornfields. The kernels he planted in the rainy spring are now dry stalks, their husked kernels burnished, indented, and dry.
His wife, Michelle, busies herself inside, baking buttermilk biscuits in cast iron pans and stirring a pot of buttery grits. There are apples to slice and plates to set, because after the morning’s work everyone is going to be hungry. Their son Grant checks on his flock of chickens and gathers fresh eggs. Meanwhile, friends are on the way over to help with the many chores involved to process the crop and prepare it for milling. It’s harvest day.
This may read like idyllic family farm life from the 18th century, but the Stauffers are first-generation farmers working land purchased just five years ago. Since 2015, their family business, Colonial Milling, has grown and milled heritage non-GMO corn in Pauline.
“We’ve realized that living and eating this way, simply and with the freshest ingredients, just tastes better,” Michelle Stauffer says, unsealing a jar of homemade strawberry jam.
Theirs is a history unfolding. Jon and Michelle met in high school, and their roots in the Spartanburg community run deep. After a summer job cutting hay when he was 16, Jon knew he had found his calling. So after years of funneling his love of the outdoors into a landscaping business, farming beckoned in earnest. When the couple began searching for land, a listing for an antebellum home from the 1790s on 25 acres felt as if it had been handed to them from across the centuries.
The farmhouse echos with history: Handmade bricks on the chimney are etched with dates, names, and thumbprints; hand-hewn logs hide under the plaster in the front room; and the kitchen connects to the main house by a narrow hallway. While playing outside, Grant often comes across arrowheads, hand-forged nails, and once, even a rusted bayonet.
“It’s a work in progress, that’s for sure,” Jon says as he surveys their recent renovation project: resetting and plastering the brick pillars on a wide back porch. His eyes pass over the field of corn banking a creek, across free-ranging chickens, the mill house, and the vast kitchen garden, and he smiles. “We wouldn’t have it any other way,” he says.
Jon’s farming technique is at once age-old and new utilizing cover crops and companion planting to create bionutrient-rich soil essential to cultivate an heirloom crop. Both varieties of corn they grow, Hawkins Prolific and Hickory King, require careful tending in order to produce flavorful kernels ready to mill. From seed to field to table is a careful journey, one that requires faithful dedication. After harvest, the corn is ground onsite using a circa-1930s grain mill fitted with a pink granite stone before it is sifted into cornmeal, grits, and polenta.
The resulting product is delicious — sweet, golden, and possessing a depth of flavor absent in commercial products — which is why local-centric restaurants such as The Kennedy (opened by William Cribb, a 2017 South Carolina chef ambassador) clamber to feature Colonial Milling’s products on their menus. They are telling the same story really, of what can be produced by the land: good, simple food. It’s a story that requires work, but with the help of friends and food these chores are transformed into something more with children, chickens, kittens, and a dog lending an air of celebration to this harvest morning.
It is a way of life ripe for community.
“We love having people over, and it seems like all of our friends are good cooks and love sharing meals.”
Because most of them have small children, easy gatherings make the most sense.
Harvest may not be your particular excuse to gather. Instead maybe it’s the first chilly morning of the season or celebrating friends in town or an impromptu neighborhood get-together. Michelle says she favors recipes that come together quickly, creating a comforting and delicious fall brunch.
The Stauffers live by the sentiment “make a life you love,” words that reflect in a home and a business brimming with simple pleasures: a morning’s work, friends around the table, and a perfect bowl of grits. Good for centuries before, and centuries to come.
RECIPES: You can make it!
Recipes provided by Michelle Stauffer and Beth Brown Ables
- ½ cup heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 cup stone-ground heirloom grits
- 2 ounces cream cheese
- ¼ cup sharp white cheddar cheese, grated
Over medium heat, bring three cups of water along with the first three ingredients to a boil. Stir in grits. Reduce heat to medium low and cover. Simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. After grits are fully cooked and creamy, fold in cheese and serve.
For light and flaky biscuits, use cold ingredients — even frozen butter. A second tip: Don’t handle the dough too much.
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 6 tablespoons frozen butter
- 1 cup cold buttermilk
Preheat cast-iron skillet in 450 F oven. In a large bowl, mix all dry ingredients together. Grate butter — use a box grater — directly into the flour mixture and stir well. Add buttermilk to the flour mixture and stir only until liquid milk has absorbed; the dough will still be crumbly.
Pour dough on a lightly floured surface. Using fingertips, form dough into a rectangle. Fold the dough in half, then lightly press the dough again into another rectangle. Repeat this process five times. This process ensures a flaky, layered biscuit. Cut biscuits and place them into the cast-iron skillet. Bake 20-25 minutes until golden brown.
- 1½ pounds fresh okra, 3-4 inches long
- 2 cups water
- 2 cups white vinegar
- 3 tablespoons kosher salt
- 1 tablespoons sugar
- 1 lemon, sliced
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled
For the pickling spices:
- 2 tablespoons mustard seed
- 1 tablespoon coriander seed
- 1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1 teaspoon celery seeds
- 1 teaspoon black peppercorns
In a small saucepan, combine water, vinegar, salt, and sugar. Bring to a simmer. In each clean quart jar, place 1 tablespoon pickling spice mixture, a slice of lemon, and 1 peeled garlic clove. Tightly pack trimmed okra in the jar and carefully pour the hot liquid over the okra, leaving a quarter-inch headspace. Fit canning lid and ring to jar. Place jars in hot water and bring to a boil. Boil 15 minutes, then carefully remove jars. Allow to sit on the counter overnight, then check to see that jars are sealed. If one didn’t seal, that’s OK! Keep it refrigerated and eat it within a few weeks.