The Coastal Conservation League has launched the GrowFood Carolina project, a local food hub that links local farmers to local and regional markets by providing adequate infrastructure and coordination so that fresh produce can move seamlessly from local farmers’ land to consumers’ hands. The launch of the project included community involvement to develop a concept, brand, logo, and plan for operations. Through outreach to farmers, hiring a general manager, renovating a building, and a communications agenda, GrowFood Carolina has positioned itself to begin successfully distributing local produce this month.
The South Carolina Coastal Conservation League (CCL), a 20-year old environmental advocacy organization, has a long successful history of supporting rural communities along South Carolina’s coast. One of CCL’s earliest projects was the Penn School for Preservation which worked with leaders from the historically African-American and agricultural sea islands, giving them tools to protect their communities and environment from mounting development pressures. More recently, we have focused on the critical role of agriculture as a key factor in our communities and economy, realizing the need for a transition from industrial export agriculture to more sustainable community farming, and acknowledging this change will require reassembling the social and economic infrastructure of rural South Carolina.
There are three basic areas where agricultural reform must occur in our state in order to move to a sustainable and secure local food economy: state policy, farmer education and recruitment, and physical infrastructure for product processing, marketing and distribution. We need laws and regulations that accommodate small farmers selling locally; educational resources to provide farmers to tap into new
metropolitan markets; and physical facilities and places for local processing and distribution. Properly done, this agenda has the potential to revitalize the state’s rural economy, recapitalize farms, conserve the best of the state’s valuable agricultural lands, and help mend inequities that have plagued the state’s food system for three hundred years.
Supporting and expanding local farming will bolster our state’s economy. A study by the University of Minnesota Extension Service revealed that small farms with gross income of $100,000 made almost 95% of total expenditures within their local communities. Large farms with gross income greater than $900,000 spent less than 20% locally. But local farmers in South Carolina are struggling to earn a livable wage. These farmers face many obstacles, such as current distribution models that favor industrial-scale farms.
There is currently a well-developed private and public-sector infrastructure for large-scale industrial agriculture. Produce distributors, packing sheds, warehouses, etc., serve large farmers adequately, particularly in the export arena. Conversely, small scale operators are subject to undependable pickup trucks, unknown buyers and markets, and unpredictable and uncontrollable prices. Large and dependable retailers have insurmountable fees and logistical demands that are difficult for small farmers to overcome. Therefore buyers, like restaurants, grocery stores and families, experience a corresponding disconnect when they try to buy from local farmers. They are unable to purchase local produce in predictable quantity and quality in convenient locations.
The missing link between local buyers and local small-scale farmers are local distribution centers designed to serve small farmers (“local food hubs”), located in proximity to metropolitan markets. These centers not only serve as points of collection and distribution, but they also perform clearinghouse functions, matching buyers with sellers, establishing fair prices and providing marketing services.
The Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) funding has enabled our organization to involve the local community in planning, branding, building, educating, and celebrating the local food project, GrowFood Carolina, that will begin serving the region with local produce from sustainable farms in October 2011. GrowFood Carolina, located at 990 Morrison Drive in downtown Charleston, serves as a convenient aggregation point for farmers. Through aggregation, coordination with buyers, branding, and distribution, small farmers can tap into difficult to access retail centers, such as grocery stores, restaurants, and schools.
GrowFood Carolina serves as an important catalyst in strengthening and securing the future of a regional and sustainable food supply by providing small rural farmers with the business apparatus to support and advance their economic prosperity. The ultimate goal of GrowFood Carolina is to ensure the economic success of sustainable farmers and agriculture in our region.
Expanding Sustainable Agriculture Practices:
One of the primary objectives of the project is promoting and expanding sustainable farming practices by creating lasting relationships within the farming and local food community. GrowFood Carolina will continue to link small-scale local farmers to sustainable agriculture resources that can assist with technical support, regulatory compliance, beneficial planning, education outreach and agricultural support. These relationships are vital to the success of GrowFood Carolina, and have expanded as a result of working on this project.
In order to revitalize the rural areas of South Carolina, our project aims to make small sustainable farms economically successful by ensuring a reliable, predictable, and readily accessible supply and demand for local food year round. CCL will continue to work with other organizations and farmers on harvest projections and planting schedules to ensure that they are planning in an economically beneficial way for everyone involved.
GrowFood Carolina assists local sustainable farmers in product marketing–including branding, pricing, and product scheduling [planting plans], through education outreach. The project team will work in focus groups comprised of farmers, extension agents, chefs, local government, local nonprofits and other stakeholders to determine the best approach.
The community has become vested in GrowFood Carolina through the media, events, and outreach. Media has played a large role in educating the public. Additionally, GrowFood Carolina and CCL staff have met with groups of farmers from Hemingway, SC to St. George, SC, inviting local farmers to participate on the project, ask questions and/or provide feedback. The project team will continue to educate the public about the project’s role and will work to resolve any obstacles that may arise by ensuring that the farmers’ interests are protected and enhanced.
Increase Local Agricultural Research & Assessment:
One of the benefits of working through a local food hub is local food economy data collection. GrowFood Carolina will work in a transparent and collaborative manner to distribute local food data to local organizations, farmers, stakeholders and national organizations. The project team has been working with local software developer Agrinovare on FoodHub Pro software that is a web-based inventory management service. Local agricultural data will be gathered and reported throughout the project’s operation. CCL staff will meet with public officials, co-ops, farmers, chefs and other officials to present and discuss data relevant to the success of our local food economy as it becomes available.
Creation of a Sustainable Model Facility:
GrowFood Carolina will not only serve Charleston’s regional farmers with a food distribution center, but the entire project will also serve as a national model of a more sustainable food distribution system. With the project’s broad range of partners, it will become a model for other states to follow in order to stimulate small-scale rural economies through marketing, planning, coordination and efficient distribution of local products to local consumers.
CCL worked with local community members, both in group and individual meetings, NGOs, government employees, and farmers to assess priority focus areas and a beginning strategy for GrowFood Carolina. Individual meetings with more than thirty farmers in the project area enabled us to begin to plan for product availability, and provided a clear understanding of what the small-scale farming community is facing. Focus groups were also held for local food stakeholders in St. George, SC and Charleston, SC. Meeting with other like-minded organizations across the Lowcountry formed a network of stakeholders that will continue to meet as the project moves forward, guiding and building on existing infrastructure and projects. The network includes Lowcountry Local First, Slowfood Charleston, Louie’s Kids, Clemson Extension, Medical University of South Carolina Wellness Program, Arbor One Farm Credit, and the PeeDee Land Trust, among others.
In addition to outreach and collaboration, we held an online competition for a name for the project. Based on entries and feedback, a project committee, comprised of food stakeholders, selected a project name and identity – GrowFood Carolina. Subsequently, we worked with Gil Shuler Design, a graphic design artist, to create a logo (attached) and brand that demonstrate the project’s commitment to fresh and local produce. The logo and brand have been posted around the community in various venues to begin the education process before the produce arrives in retail stores.
While meeting with the community and branding the project, we also launched an intensive media campaign to begin educating the community about the importance of the GrowFood Carolina project. This summer, we created a presence on Facebook, Twitter and the internet, and launched GrowFoodCarolina.com.
Concurrently, the GrowFood Carolina business plan was refined and our search for a General Manager was realized in June 2011, when we hired Sara Clow, former General Manager for Purity Organic in San Francisco, California. Prior to that, she was the Commodity Manager at Pacific Organic Produce. Sara has worked with a diverse group of growers and customers throughout her career. She was also very involved as a volunteer with the Marin Agricultural Land Trust in Northern CA, an organization that works to protect active farmlands for future generations.
Upon arriving at GrowFood Carolina, Sara immediately gave more shape to the business plan and dove into building relationships with growers and buyers to begin to align supply and demand.
Also in June, physical renovations began at 990 Morrison Drive, under the supervision of local contractor Mike Taylor and local architects, Gibson Guess Architects. With the installation of the coolers currently underway, the 11,000 square foot space will be ready for operation this October.
Currently, through the GrowFood Carolina project, we have engaged more than 50 farmers, recorded what they grow, where they are located, what their needs are, and how they will involve themselves in this project. Every farmer who will sell through GrowFood Carolina has had a personal farm visit. We have worked with them in determining what they are best suited to grow, what receives a premium in the market place, and how they will get their produce to the warehouse. We now have a network of stakeholders, and a greater sense of understanding about how food moves through our local economy.
The indirect impacts of the projects are so large that they are impossible to measure at this point in the project. Countless emails and phone calls arrive each week from people who are interested in the project and want to involve themselves. With a project of this magnitude, the impacts will be more easily measured as sales begin this fall and we understand the dollar amounts that are staying local and the economic sustainability of the local food hub. This project provides a huge opportunity to quantify regional food success through sales and production numbers, all being recorded and reported as the project begins this fall.
Educational & Outreach Activities
GrowFood Carolina, through outreach and events, has received a lot of publicity from the local media. Bill Murray joined CCL and GrowFood Carolina staff for a short video (you tube video below). Also listed below are the many articles written about the project.
You Tube video featuring Bill Murray —
The Digitel, Amanda Click, August 5th, 2011
Charleston City Paper, Paul Bowers, August 4th, 2011 http://www.charlestoncitypaper.com/charleston/farmers-distribution-center-to-open-by-oct-1/Content?oid=3562850
The Post and Courier, John McDermott, August 4th, 2011
NCAT Sustainable Agriculture Project
Charleston City Paper, Alison Sher, April 27th, 2011
The Hemingway News, Matt McColl, May 13th, 2011
The Post and Courier, Editorial, March 29, 2011
The Coastal Conservation League Website
One of the greatest achievements of this project is the network of local organizations and non-traditional partners that have expressed interest and support of GrowFood Carolina. Not only are we working with the Nature Conservancy and Lowcountry Local First, but we have also been working closely with Slowfood Charleston, Louie’s Kids, Clemson Extension, Medical University of South Carolina Wellness Program, Arbor One Farm Credit, PeeDee Land Trust, Piggly Wiggly, Whole Foods, Earth Fare and other local vendors and restaurants. The state Department of Agriculture has been an active partner in the project, and the warehouse is already enrolled in the “Certified SC” state-run program. This breadth of collaboration leads to a greater overall impact and potential for the project to grow and succeed. There has been an overwhelming show of support for GrowFood Carolina, and we look forward to expanding the creative opportunities for partnerships.
Our media campaign, both traditional and social, has made an enormous impact on the level of education that the community has about local agriculture. Through our Facebook page, we have more than 150 fans who follow us and learn about what we are doing on a daily basis. We also post on Twitter and through our web page, GrowFoodCarolina.com. By attaching our logo and brand to our publications, we have achieved brand recognition in a short amount of time. Through our logo and brand development, people in the community have a general understanding of what the GrowFood Carolina project is about and where it is headed.
Our biggest accomplishment was hiring an extremely competent and qualified General Manager to lead the project into the next ambitious phase. Her experience with local food distribution, direct farmer relationships, business management and warehousing will be one of the most important attributes of the project moving forward. After arriving, she further developed the business plan and projections to lead the project into a successful and sustainable future.
This local food hub project is not only unique in its social implications, but it is also a model for green building. Because GrowFood Carolina is an economic model for the community, and possibly the nation, the structure that houses the project should also serve as a model of energy efficiency and environmental design. We have been working with local business, GreenWizard, to ensure that renovations on the building will qualify for LEED certification. To celebrate the construction and unique “green” features on the warehouse, we held a groundbreaking event for the entire community in August. Among the attendees were many farmers, the SC Commissioner of Agriculture, local food purveyors, Piggly Wiggly, and other food stakeholders.
Growfood Carolina has the potential to contribute to our community in numerous ways. First, as a new model of distribution, it provides a steady economic option for small-scale farmers, an option that doesn’t currently exist in the Lowcountry. Second, the network that forms around this project that has economic incentives provides a huge opportunity for outreach and education. Third, as a point of aggregation, farmers will be able to compare notes about what is growing, treatments, techniques and other useful information.
Local food hubs across the country are contributing to a more sustainable food distribution system, where smaller farmers can spend less time in sales and marketing and more time farming. GrowFood Carolina’s vision is to be a bold, energetic, collaborative partner in joining the movement of localized food distribution. GrowFood Carolina will promote local foods, local farms and rural sustainability. It will also help local consumers to better know their food and its source, and to make the link that this is important to their environment as well as their physical and economic health. By supporting small farmers, GrowFood Carolina will be helping to secure the future of a regional food supply and the prosperity of South Carolina’s rural communities.
Farmers will deliver their fresh produce to the warehouse on a regular basis, which means that they will interact, see and learn what others are growing, and network on a regular basis. This interaction will prevent redundancy and ensure that the farming community understands resource availability and the latest news.
GrowFood products, branded and sold in local restaurants, schools and institutions, will help local consumers to better know their food and its source, and to make the link that local food is important to environmental conservation, as well as human and economic health. By supporting small farmers, GrowFood Carolina will be helping to secure the future of a regional food supply and the prosperity of South Carolina’s rural communities.
GrowFood Carolina will continue to add the most progressive elements of sustainability into the project, such as additional green building features, reusable plastic containers, and efficiency in distribution design. It is a project that will network the farmer/consumer community together, conceptually and physically. As a gathering place for aggregation, there are many opportunities for farmer education and training on post-harvest handling, good handling and agricultural practices (GHP, GAP), proper storage and transportation, and technology training. It is also a gathering place for farmers to share ideas and techniques.
The physical location with high visibility provides an excellent opportunity to create demonstration plots for gardens and composting, as well events that bring the community together for local food and healthy living events.
Additionally, with the remaining space in the building, there are opportunities for value-added processes that would enable farmers to preserve their products in order to ensure year-round availability of local products.
With a project of this scale, there are many opportunities for collaborative projects and networking. By bringing together the producers, existing infrastructure, and consumers, we are ensuring the future success of a more localized and sustainable food system.