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Chris Miller, owner of That Garden Guy, LLC, talks about his vision behind his business of growing food. LAUREN PETRACCA/Staff

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On a chilly Friday morning in November, Chris Miller is pushing compost around with a hoe just outside Saskatoon Lodge. The fresh and quite large delivery from Atlas Organics has just arrived at the restaurant, and Miller has a long task ahead of him.

The compost steams against the cool air, and carries a distinct smell, but Miller doesn’t seem to mind. This is what he has been waiting for, what he has built his life around, a chance to create landscapes that are functional and beautiful.

And with his newly launched business, Yeah, That Garden Guy, Miller is doing just that.

“I’ve always loved getting my hands in the dirt, and so it’s all the jobs I’ve had – landscaping, a little construction, cooking, working in kitchens, farming,” Miller says, taking a brief break from his work. “That all kind of comes together in this edible landscaping.”

Miller, who recently spent nearly two years at Reedy River Farms, has left the more standard farming realm to pursue something that fuses his passion for the culinary realm. That Garden Guy, is focused on helping restaurants, individuals, schools and other organizations or institutions grow their own food. But Miller brings more than just design to the process, he brings an understanding of climate, soil health, irrigation and the fundamentals of organic farming, not to mention an eye for design.

That Miller has started his business now reflects both where he is in his life, but also where Greenville is as a culinary center. In just under six months, That Garden Guy has grown a sizeable roster of clients, most of them restaurants.

That may reflect a broader trend at play, the growth of micro-farms. Call it the ultimate in local food, these are small, highly focused farms that allow restaurants to grow exactly what they want, when they want it, all on their own property.

What Miller provides is the means to create it and also the tools to maintain it.

“Here, he has a lot of land to work with, but he is finding space that can be utilized and would not be utilized otherwise to create local food,” says Edmund Woo, owner of Saskatoon Lodge, who hired Miller to convert part of his 9-acre property into a working farm. “It’s allowing chefs to be more creative not just with what they cook but to have more control over the whole process.”

Miller might just be the perfect person to unite the culinary and the farming worlds. He brings a background in both, having worked both in kitchens and on farms throughout the Midwest and Southeast. Most recently, the Illinois native worked with George DuBose in helping get Reedy River Farms running, and he just left a job at Bacon Bros. Public House.

“I have a passion for food,” Miller says with a grin and a shrug. “I haven’t been here long, but I do think it’s a great time now with it (Greenville) becoming a more foodie destination and all these restaurants and everyone is interested in the way their food is produced.”

 

Miller has also always loved working with his hands. In high school, he worked landscaping jobs, and then moved into kitchens to help pay for college.

He studied sustainable agriculture, which inspired a new way of thinking about the way we get our food and what it means for the environment.

That thinking led Miller to farming. He spent time on farms from Missouri to North Carolina, which is where he met DuBose, and how he subsequently made his way to Greenville. With Miller’s background in kitchens, he loved the culinary-focused vision of the farm. And Reedy River, with its modest 1-acre plot was inspiration for where Miller is now.

Already, Miller’s work is popping up around town. At GB&D, he planted boxes with herbs, at Bacon Bros. Public House, an herb garden as well, at The Anchorage, he created a raised bed garden and at Kitchen Sync, on Laurens Road, he constructed seven raised beds, five of which are on the rooftop of the restaurant’s shipping container.

The additions have already provided a steady stream of microgreens and fresh herbs to the restaurant.

“I think there is a niche that is developing and is perhaps further developed in other markets, and it makes sense to have a dual purpose,” says Kevin Feeny, co-owner of the year-and-a-half-old Kitchen Sync restaurant on Laurens Road.

“Our chefs are out there cutting herbs and greens every day,” Feeny says. “He may have really tapped into something that will be really fun and interesting for the area. When you see rooftop microgreens, it does get people’s attention.”

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Back at Saskatoon Lodge, Miller is reviewing his plans. He unrolls his crinkled sheets of plans that tell the story of the future space in neatly printed measurements and lines. Originally, Miller was going to focus mainly on creating a kitchen garden, florals and herbs, but then, plans changed.

Phase two, as it is being called, will include a number of traditional farm row where Miller will plant crops like potatoes and corn, items that are most often used at Saskatoon. Though he is banking on one, Woo is not yet sure of the economic cost of the on-site farm, but he is certain of one thing. The farm gives him the greatest level of control over his products.

“The first thing is the ability know how it’s grown, where it was grown, when it was picked,” Woo says of the value of growing his own food. “Here, if we need this herb, we go out and get it, it’s fresh. So to have control and knowledge of the supply chain, I think that is very powerful.”

Thus far, the fruits of Miller’s labor have been apparent, though stunted by the unusually long stretches of cold weather that have hit the Upstate. Still, the gardens have produced spinach, beets and some herbs.

In December, with Miller’s help, Woo successfully registered his 9-acre plot as a farm with the National Resources Conservation Service. This has allowed him to take his vision even further. Miller has helped him apply for a USDA grant to fund a high tunnel system that would allow for a more all-weather growing season.

He is also helping another local restaurant with the same farm classification, and is in talks with several local folks about creating non-profit farms that would grow food to be donated to local hunger relief organizations.

If he talks even larger goals, he'd like to grow enough to be able to hire a team of folks who are under or unemployed. He is already forming partnerships with places like Soteria and Feed & Seed.

“I just want to help people grow food,” Miller says kindly. “We’ve become so disconnected from the whole process that a lot of people aren’t familiar with something as intimate as feeding yourself and being able to grow food.”

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