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.