LOWRYS -- Down a gravel road between Rock Hill and Chester, past Donnie's Circle and Fred's Way and a posterboard sign that reads "Gods Working Keep Praying," two parties shook hands on a real estate deal with multimillion dollar implications.
A short time later, Jeff Wilson climbed into his dusty Dodge pickup and took off through the woods, bouncing toward the cotton patches and wheat fields he's worked for nearly all his 59 years.
Listening to him talk, it was hard to tell that Wilson had just signed away the future of his family's property.
On Monday morning, the Wilsons completed a pact with the Nation Ford and Katawba Valley land trusts that protects their land from development and ensures its future as one of the last working farms of significant size in the area.
The deal means Wilson's gravel road and his Cotton Hills Farm -- 640 acres in Chester County and another 230 across the county line in York -- won't ever change, unless his sons decide to plant a new crop on it sometime.
Grits, jellies and commitment
As his pickup bounded past a pond and into a clearing, Wilson explained the only thing different will be fewer inquiries from potential suitors, as well as tax breaks that come with putting land in a trust.
"It's not unusual for people to call me on the telephone, wanting to buy a piece of it," Wilson said. "You get mailings from real estate agents, too. I'm nice to 'em."
With demand picking up across the country for locally grown produce and niche specialty foods, the Wilsons believe their farm can survive -- even at a time when development is encroaching into rural areas that once dominated South Carolina.
"You see other parts of the county and what's happened to farms," said Paul Gettys, a member of the Katawba Valley Land Trust board. "This is a commitment to a rural lifestyle that's going to become rare as York County develops."
The Wilsons raise corn, peaches, pumpkins, strawberries, watermelons and "just about any vegetable you can think of," says son Jeb.
They operate a produce stand where the property fronts on U.S. 321. They ship stone-ground grits to New York City and sell jellies, relishes and marmalade through a Web site set up by son Pete.
The family business
Selling off to a developer could have netted upwards of $8 million -- more than grits and jelly will ever make. But it wouldn't have felt right to Wilson or his family. One day, Jeb wants his own children to inherit the land that has been part of the family since the 1880s.
"We feel like this is staking our claim as a farm," he said.
Now 27, Jeb graduated from Clemson University with a degree in agriculture and applied economics, then earned a master's degree in journalism at the University of Texas.
Not long after, he decided life on the farm suited him best.
"The newspaper business and the farm are both moving in the same direction," he said. "I just don't think people appreciate either one as much as they should. People kind of take it for granted. (But) their food's got to come from somewhere."
Over a lunch of beef ribs, baked beans, potato salad, and chocolate and pecan pie prepared by his wife, Carol, Jeff Wilson talked about the $4 prices he's getting for bales of hay, higher than usual because of the ongoing drought.
His son looked ahead to next Halloween, when customers will drive from miles around to buy the pumpkins he has raised since he could barely pick them up.
After Monday's handshake, these will be the most pressing concerns when the Wilsons contemplate the future of their farm.