Seems like Mark and Annie Filion just could not escape farming. Mark’s grandfather raised chickens in Rhode Island, and Annie’s grandfather farmed the Walterboro, SC property that they now call Keegan-Filion Farm. On this land they raise free-range chickens and hogs — both sought after by Charleston chefs.
But, of course, their story does not wrap up quite so neatly. Their current operation began in 2004; yet, Mark and Annie first tried their hand at farming in 1986, raising commercial hogs for Smithfield. As the demand for such “factory pork” grew, smaller farmers like the Filions became priced out of the game. In 1994 they sold their remaining hogs and began leasing the land to other local farmers. Mark focused his attention on his ”day job” as a sales manager for a pipe valve company, and Annie became a purchasing agent at a Walterboro plant.
Ten years later, Annie found herself working 50 to 60 hours a week and not getting anywhere. She wanted to do work that would benefit the community; so, the Filions sat down and came up with a couple of options. They debated between creating a taxi service for the elderly or starting an organic market, and in 2004, they opened The Farm Store right outside their front door. There, they sold all-natural produce purchased from a large distribution company out of Florida. They had moderate success at the beginning, but soon larger grocery stores and even Walmart began carrying some organics, which obviously hurt the demand for their small operation.
Luckily, the Filions had a fallback plan, whether they realized it or not. Concurrently with opening the market, they had once again begun to work their land. Over the past decade they had watched tenants basically destroy the property with bad farming practices, and they knew they had a long road ahead of them. First, they bought laying hens. This seemed a manageable project and a good way to rehabilitate the soil. Next came broiler chickens and finally hogs at the request of several Charleston chefs. The Filions had their doubts about entering the hog business again, but they moved ahead, determined to do it differently this time. They enlisted their good friend Bubba Craven as a business partner and began breeding a heritage line known as Tamworth.
The Fillions sold their first hog to Chef Craig Diehl (of Cypress restaurant) in 2007, and they both delivered the finished product to him with a bit of anxiety, worried he might not like their pork. They stood by as Chef Diehl began cutting chops, and Mark remembers his murmuring, “Oh…oh….oh…” Then Chef Diehl turned to them and said, “This is fantastic!”
The marbling of the Filions’ pork has since become near legendary, and they really cannot keep up with the demand for their hogs or chickens. While this might sound like unequivocal success, the Filions still struggle. Producing superior flavor takes time, and, of course, time means money.
So, Mark continues to work his “day job”; now he manages industrial sales for another corporate entity. Basically, he spends his weeks on the road and his weekends on the farm. Annie works the farm with the full-time help of Bubba and a few other part-time employees, delivering to Charleston restaurants once a week and visiting the processing facility in Kingstree once every two weeks. All of this adds up to countless hours of labor and very little time together, but the Filions still deem it worthwhile. Every Saturday evening they go to church and then have dinner with Mark’s mother at the local Greek restaurant, and for now maybe that’s enough.
Of course, one day, Mark hopes to farm full time and possibly bring their son Jessie into the family business. But all in all, he seems satisfied and surprisingly unstressed. “What we do is not any different than anyone else, except we also have about 4,000 animals that depend on us,” he says without a bit of irony.
At the GO, we feel especially proud when Annie delivers a whole hog. We use every bit — making everything from ragout to pate out of this delectable pork.
But these days we are most proud of our collaboration with Keegan-Filion to make our whole hog sausage — Belle’s Country Links, which we have packaged for sale at the restaurant and on our website – www.ilovetheglassonion.com.
Belle’s Sausage Gravy
1 pound Belle’s Country Links, minced
1 cup diced onion (about 1 small onion)
1 cup diced green bell pepper (about 1 medium bell pepper)
3 tablespoons sliced garlic (about 3 medium garlic cloves)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 to 2 quarts chicken stock (or whole milk)
1 tablespoon heavy cream (optional)
Cook the sausage in a large, deep skillet or sauté pan over medium heat until browned, about 5 minutes, breaking the sausage up with a wooden spoon as it cooks. Add onion, bell pepper, garlic, and butter; stir to combine. Cook until onions are translucent, about 10 minutes. Slowly add flour a little at a time, stirring thoroughly between additions. Once all flour is incorporated mixture should be thick and pasty. Slowly add stock (or milk) a little at a time, stirring thoroughly between additions. Continue adding stock until desired consistency is achieved (some like thicker gravy; some like thinner). Simmer gravy until raw flour taste is gone, about 20 minutes. Finish with cream if desired. Serve over biscuits!
Yield: 6 to 8 servings as a garnish for biscuits
P.S. At the GO we use chicken stock for our gravy and then finish it with just a touch of cream, but whole milk is a fine substitution for the stock – just makes this more like a traditional sawmill gravy. If you are using milk there is no need to finish with cream.
P.P.S At the GO we make our own buttermilk biscuits, but if you are pressed for time we highly recommend Callie’s Biscuits, which are available at www.calliesbiscuits.com. You will also find Belle’s Country Links sold there as they truly are a match made in heaven!