ST. GEORGE — Steven Walters bends down on his knees, grabs the tops of several little leaves poking from the sandy soil, slices them off with a knife, tosses them into a half-bushel box and repeats the process with the next patch of leaves.

When he has cut off all the leaves within reach, be moves his knees and the box farther along the 500-foot row.

To Walters and many others, this could be the salvation for economically struggling rural South Carolina and rural areas across the nation.

Farming — isn’t that what rural residents have done forever?

How can it save rural economies, especially in the 26 counties of Forgotten South Carolina where as many as one out of three lives in poverty?

Walters grins as he moves farther down the row and tosses more of the nutty, bittersweet greens into his box. “Restaurants love baby kale,” he says.

Walters will fill 10 or so boxes by the time he finishes the row.

For now, he farms 5 of about 200 acres owned by his mother. He hopes to expand within a few weeks to 15 acres and hire one or two people to help out. He wants to double that to 30 acres next year so he can rotate cover plants on some fields to replenish and improve the soil, and he’s considering tackling some certified organic crops.

“We already use most of the basic organic principles. We never spray any synthetic fungicides or pesticides,” he says.

However, it would require a several-year documentation and inspection process.

Walters is part of the farm-to-table movement that sees locally produced farm products as part of the answer to improving rural economies and the diets of South Carolinians and Americans in general.

The state Department of Agriculture agrees and points to a 2010 study by the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina.

The study found that if South Carolina increased demand for locally produced farm products to the higher levels seen in Georgia and North Carolina, it would double the total economic impact to more than $555 million and generate 10,000 new jobs.

It also would help keep the state’s 26,500 farmers at work, especially those on small farms,

A key problem with achieving that is the lack of an effective system to market and distribute produce from small farms.

Creating a food hub

At a remodeled warehouse along Charleston’s Morrison Avenue, Sara Clow counts Walters as an indication of success.

She runs GrowFood Carolina, an effort started by the Coastal Conservation League in 2010 to help local farmers profit by creating a marketing and distribution system.

It’s the state’s first so-called food hub.

Typically, small farms have been cut off from a food production and distribution system designed to work for corporate or mega-farms and supermarket chains, a system that ships produce, such as tomatoes, thousands of miles to the grocery store near you.

Small farms generally sell through stands and farmers markets. That limits their reach and forces them to market and distribute what they grow.

GrowFood returns 80 percent of the sale price to farmers relieving them of the burden to market and distribute.

Historically, agriculture in South Carolina has focused on commodity crops, such as tobacco, cotton and soy beans, that are sold mainly out of state.

The potential for growth in local farm sales is huge: South Carolinians spend about $7 billion a year on food, just 8 percent of that on state produce.

GrowFood hopes to prove local farms can make profits if given an effective system to market to local restaurants and grocery stores, Clow says.

Charleston offered the perfect place to set up a model because of the growing farm-to-table movement among the Lowcountry’s many chefs and restaurants, where serving local and seasonal food has reached an art form. Several grocers also have gotten onboard to serve the demand from health and taste conscious home chefs.

GrowFood started with about $1 million — $700,000 in contributions and a loan of $300,000. It expects a profit in 2017.

It has been in full operation for just over a year and provides produce from 45 farms within 120 miles of Charleston to nine individual grocery stores and more than 100 restaurants, caterers and food trucks.

Clow works with the chefs and grocers to learn what they want, arranges with farmers to vary crops and the amounts so they aren’t growing the same one or two vegetables at a time. She then provides farmers with purchase orders to regulate the flow of produce.

All farmers have to do is grow, harvest and box their produce and bring it to GrowFood, where it is stored in refrigerators for distribution.

Farmers who don’t normally grow enough quantity or variety of vegetables to sustain consistent sales can benefit by pooling their produce with what other farmers grow.

While other states, including North Carolina and Georgia, are further along in the farm-to-table food hub business, South Carolina has been a little slow to capitalize on it.

The state Department of Agriculture plans to change that and “make small farmers into big business.”

Nothing is firm yet, but Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers says, “We are working to see how and where successful local food hubs can be established in the state.

Kelly Coakley, the department‘s public information director, says an effort is in the works to focus on small farmers and promote economic development and jobs. The study should be done in August.

Weathers said GrowFood may serve as a model to help farmers across the state.

“Food hubs and value added processing can provide additional market opportunities for those farmers and help increase access to healthy foods for all South Carolinians,” he says.

A farmer and a chef

In the kitchen at the Mercury Bar in Charleston’s bustling upper King Street district, chef Stephen Thompson spreads Walters’ Siberian kale leaves, radishes, arugula and bean sprouts in a sweet and spicy reduction over dim sum filled with ground pork, water chestnuts, cilantro and ginger.

The two have been friends for years, Thompson says. “He became a farmer and I became a chef.”

Thompson wants all who eat at the restaurant to know the vegetables taste so good because most were picked that day from just 45 minutes away.

He expects his menu to be all local as the restaurant’s new owners change the décor and name and shift to dining and less nightclubbing.

Big plans

Walters places one last handful of baby kale into a box and smiles. He’s so pleased with his farming that he’s busting out in plans to grow his business.

He’s considering opening a market and will start a Community Supported Agriculture operation in August to sell directly to people around Charleston.

His goal is to sign up 100 orders and deliver around greater Charleston once a week for 12 weeks. He says he will provide a cornucopia of freshly harvested produce the entire 12 weeks, from arugula to zucchini.

He hopes to soon clear about $50,000 a year, substantially more than the state’s average farm income of $29,400.

Walters, 30, grew up on a farm, but never considered farming until several years ago while working in a couple Mount Pleasant restaurants.

Walters avoided many of the costs a beginning farmer would incur: Not only did his mom own the land and allow him to farm it at no cost, but it came with a tractor and much of the other necessary equipment. “Starting a farm is hard enough. If I had tractor, large equipment and land costs to worry about it would be a nightmare.”

Still, he didn’t envision the costly mistakes he’d make along the way, he says. “It was trial and error. I had no experience. I had whole crop failure.”

He once threw away 2,000 watermelons. “I knew how to grow, not how to sell.”

The hardships made him more determined. He took horticulture classes at Trident Tech and read everything he could find on growing vegetables.

His girlfriend, Heather, who is now his wife, encouraged him through the bad years.

“She was a little skeptical at first, but I don’t blame her. Farmers aren’t typically known for being especially well-off.”

Walters doubts he would be as close to success as he is if it hadn’t been for GrowFood.

The people there know how to market and distribute. And they helped him select exotic vegetables, such as tatsoi and other Asian greens that bring premium prices and aren’t normally seen in farmers markets or supermarkets.

GrowFood also knows what vegetables the chefs and grocers want, how much and when, he says. It freed him to farm and focus on new projects.

One of those new ideas came with the arrival of his now 6-month-old son, Rhett: With all the concern about contaminated baby food, why not grow and bottle vegetables for babies?

Besides, he said, “I have a built-in food tester.”

Reach Doug Pardue at 937-5558