June 2020

Joe King: Farmers Market Icon

Author: Michele Roldán-Shaw

At the age of five, Joe King begged to be taken to work in the peanut fields. Soon he started picking cotton alongside his daddy, with his own little sack stuffed full. By the time he was a teenager, he was getting enough profits from sharecropping to buy the fastest car in town. King loved farming—13-hour days in 100-degree heat were nothing to him, seven days a week. After graduating from high school, he could have gone to college or entered the military, but instead he chose to stay in his hometown of Portal, Georgia, in the same fields he’s worked for over a half-century. It’s a decision he’s never regretted.

“As far back as I can recall, all my family members were sharecroppers and farmers,” said King, who has lived on the same red dirt road for all but four years of his life. “I’m proud that what I got came down through the veins of my ancestors, and it makes me happy when I look back at all that was accomplished. I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s nothing else in the world I’d rather be than a farmer.”

This joyful spirit is evident to everyone who visits his tent at the farmers market, either on Thursday afternoons in Old Town Bluffton, or Saturday mornings at Forsythe Park in Savannah. People love Farmer Joe—his straw hat, warm smile, booming jolly baritone, high-fives and G-rated jokes. It’s been 30 years since he got his start, selling directly to the public in a little produce stand on the side of Highway 80, mainly to travelers passing through since most everybody in Portal, Ga. had their own garden. Later he set up shop in Statesboro, Ga., and when the farmers markets opened in Bluffton and Savannah, he was a natural fit, making friends with other vendors and winning loyal customers who return week after week. Farmer Joe’s iconic personality is the perfect complement to his pink-eyed peas, speckled butterbeans, turnips, okra, mustard greens and especially his trademark crop of pecans. King is famous for his pecans, which he gathers by hand and triple-cleans with a meticulousness that takes many hours over the kitchen table. Those that aren’t sold raw get lovingly roasted or candied by his wife, Rosaland, and the same goes for the peanuts. Whatever you get from the King family is blessed with a lot of care.

“The stuff I put on the table comes from hard work and dedication,” King said. “It’s something that I’m satisfied with because it’s clean and handled properly. They’re getting my heart, my soul, my everything when they buy my produce. And if they say, ‘I don’t really want to buy anything today; I just came by to see your face, hear your voice and say hello,’ that’s when I really know I’m doing something right.”

As a devoted scholar of the Bible, King likes to go back to the original farmer: God. He planted the garden to create humankind’s very first occupation. “We depend on the fruit that comes from the ground,” King said. “But it’s getting so high-tech these days and …what’s the word I want to say? Counterfeit. We need to go back to the natural way, which is plant a seed, then go out there with a hoe and chop the weeds out instead of putting all these poisonous chemicals on it. That’s just my personal opinion, but many of my customers would agree that they can taste the difference with that old-fashioned hard-work-and-sweat produce.”

Although none of King’s immediate descendants have taken up farming, the legacy is still important to him. “My hat goes off to all the teachers and parents who are showing kids how to plant a seed and watch it grow,” he said, fondly recalling school groups he’s taken on hay rides through strawberry fields, letting them pick their own fruit before giving them strawberry ice cream. “It they don’t stick with it, that’s okay; at least the parents did their part in letting the kids know where all the yummy stuff they eat actually comes from. I hope farmers markets live forever and that when my generation is gone, a new one will already be in place to take it even further with more determination and desire to get some good produce right straight from the ground and put it on the customer’s table.”

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