At the back of GrowGood farm, there’s a fenced-in plot. The rows align perfectly, the smaller plants protected from hungry rabbits by empty beverage bottles settled over them. And there are fully grown plants, with chard leaves the size of a toddler. A plastic lei marks a gate. At one side, there’s a small table and a barrel-style meat smoker.

Anyone who knows Charlie Southward, an original member of the GrowGood family, could guess that that corner is his territory. Charlie and his plot are both neat as a pin full of plans.

A BBQ mastermind and former caterer, Southward, 61, has big plans these days. He hopes his sauce will get national distribution and a national reputation to go with it. He experiments with sauces using some of the many varieties of peppers grown on the farm. GrowGood founder Brad Pregerson is known to be a fan.

Charlie with his kale plants. Charlie has provided hundreds of pounds of kale and collards to the Shelter's kitchen. 

Charlie with his kale plants. Charlie has provided hundreds of pounds of kale and collards to the Shelter's kitchen. 

Southward began cooking and gardening at 5, learning from his Aunt Angie, known for her beautiful garden. Then he turned his mom’s yard into a garden. 

He spent 1975-79 in the Air Force in Arizona. Afterward, he wasn’t sure what he would do. “I asked God for something I could do with my hands, a job I could enjoy and make a living,” he says. “What I really liked to do was fish and cook.”

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Though he grew up in Riverside, his “people were from Texas by way of Oklahoma,” and he had a clear sense of what the best barbecue tasted like. His uncle was a BBQ master, and everyone in his family knew how to cook.

After tasting all the barbecue spots in his part of Arizona, Southward decided the only way to get what he was longing for was to make it himself. He gave a sample to his 1st sergeant and found himself hired to cater the 82nd student Squadron picnic two years running.

From there, Southward started marketing his barbecue sauce, naturally called Charlie’s Original BBQ Sauce. A DJ friend helped him find a fan in the Star System disco, and Southward had a new career: catering BBQ wings and beef and Italian sausage for musicians – food, he says, like they got at home not the usual food of the road.

“People started coming to the club just to get the food. I went from nothing to almost $1,000 a week,” Southward says.

Over time, he catered for such musicians as Leon Russell, Della Reese, Manhattan Transfer, Julio Iglesias and the Pretenders. And his sauce was sold in stores all over Arizona, as well as in California and Nevada.

“It was a real fast life. If I had stayed in it, maybe I wouldn’t be here right now,” Southward says. He didn’t stay in it, and returned eventually returned to California, where his mother was living. And while he was at the Bell Shelter with his beloved dog Gracie, he connected with GrowGood.

And these days, while he’s growing collards and kale, he’s planning his future in BBQ and hot sauces. “So I am kind of glad it happened that way, because I am fully matured and ready,” he says.

“All of the hard work is done,” he says. Now it’s a matter of figuring out how to get the word out about his products and how to get them where there’s demand.

Southward describes the sauce as tangy, full of flavor and spicy but not overly hot. It works, he says, on vegetables, beef, shrimp or chicken.

When Southward first saw GrowGood farm, he says, it was a “disaster” except for the area now called the “garden” and planted by Jayne Torres, GrowGood’s first employee. He and a friend, David Mason, had an idea for growing food on more of the property and got the go ahead from Pregerson beginning in 2014.

Pregerson says that when he met Southward, he was feeling none too optimistic about the soil. “He says this is sandy loam riverbed soil. This is the best soil in the world. … He was right all along.”

Many people at GrowGood have benefited from Southward’s experience, and his kindness.

“I know I can go to Charlie for his straightforward opinion, which is based in years of growing and paying close attention to plants,” says Katie Lewis, the farm manager at GrowGood. “He always produces an abundance and shares it with people. I admire the way he enjoys gardening and has committed so much of himself to this place.”

And his corner of the farm? Pregerson says, “He made it into a little sanctuary.”

“My enlightenment level is elevated spiritually when I am there,” Southward says, sitting at the GrowGood picnic table, leaning on a carved cane made by a friend. “It’s almost like going to the ocean, and you got a ton of problems, and you look out at the ocean and they all melt away.”

By Mary MAcVean

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