WEST COLUMBIA — During the week, especially in the afternoon, South Carolina's State Farmers Market often looks deserted — not the thriving hub of produce many hoped for when it moved here three years ago.
By the numbers
Year the market opened in its new location.
Address on Charleston Highway, West Columbia
Interstate 26 exit to reach the market (from Charleston)
Number of buildings on the site (including wholesale sheds, gatehouse and administration building)
Number of produce resellers in the market's western and northern sheds.
Days a week the Farmers Sheds are open.
How many times more acres the new State Farmers Market site has than its previous Columbia site.
Visitors who wind their way here off Interstate 26 find two dozen sheds and warehouses spread over several dozen acres — but few signs or guidance about where to go next.
Those who find buildings where produce is being sold in small amounts must maneuver around tall stacks of pallets and other clutter.
Even one of its biggest champions, S.C. Agricultural Commissioner Hugh Weathers, said the new market has room to improve — particularly on the retail side.
“It feels more like an industrial park for food,” he said. “We've got a long-term landscaping plan to soften it a little bit. That will give a big, big campus a cozier feel. That's a challenge.”
The state also hopes to improve the market's livelihood by spending $7 million to buy additional property on the site, which was developed by the private sector. The purchase would give the state control of sheds where produce from outside the state is sold.
Many are watching warily to see if this new move bears fruit.
State Rep. Bill Crosby, R-North Charleston, opposed the deal and said he doesn't support the state market as it's now set up.
“There are so many problems with it, I'm not sure how it's going to be settled out,” he said. “I feel we should not be pumping more money into it until we can get a handle on who controls it and who it belongs to. I don't feel like we have that right now.”
Since the market left the State Fairgrounds across from Williams-Brice Stadium, its home for 57 years, the State Farmers Market has had its share of success, Weather said, such as last weekend's flower show, which drew about 13,000 people and more than $300,000 in sales.
Also, the wholesalers who built their own buildings are pleased and have seen big increases in volume.
“Given all these food regulations that are coming or have come, their timing could not have been better to have these modern facilities,” Weathers said. “We think South Carolina is primed for out-of-state investment to come do some distribution facilities. We've got some interest. It's not theoretical.”
In fact, the State Farmers Market is a gumbo of different goals and vendors.
The state's first interest is to promote the sale of South Carolina produce, then to aid wholesalers, and then to spur retail sales.
Those doing the dealing include major wholesalers, smaller wholesalers and smaller farmers and retailers.
Since the market opened, however, state officials decided to try to inject new life in it by adjusting the private-public partnership. Specifically, the Legislature approved $7 million to buy sheds used by wholesalers who sell produce from other states. The state already owns two Certified S.C. Grown sheds near Interstate 26.
Weathers said the money also would be used to buy the gatehouse, where trucks will be charged $15 or $20 a load — money that would be used for the market's upkeep.
The retail struggles facing the State Farmers Market may seem odd during an era in which “Buy Local” is gaining more fans.
South Carolina has twice the number of community farmers markets than it had five years ago, Weathers said, and some of their vendors buy wholesale at the State Farmers Market.
Even downtown Columbia now has two new farmers markets on Saturday mornings — the Soda City Market on Main Street and the All Local Farmers' Market at 711 Whaley St.
But Emile Defelice, a St. Matthews farmer who also runs the Soda City Market, said he doesn't see them as competition. “Hardly any of the vendors who are at Soda City are the kind of vendors who would be at the State Farmers Market,” he said. “I think I have three crossovers. I'm one of them.”
Rep. Crosby said the State Farmers Market should be more local. “It's needed to promote our farmers throughout the state, but my argument is that even though it is a state market, I feel like Lexington County and the city of Columbia should have some control over it because it's in their area,” he said.
David Nidiffer of L&N Produce Co. Inc. is opposed to the pending sale. He said he receives as much truck traffic as anyone else and is afraid about what the state might charge once it takes over the gatehouse. “Why do I have to pay a truck to come into the market to get to property I own?”
He said he also questions why the state plans to pay millions of dollars for property that changed hands just a few years ago for $1.57 million.
Weathers said he did not know the property's sale history, but the state's offer is based on an appraisal that considers the income that can be made there. The final sale must be approved by the S.C. Budget and Control Board.
If the deal goes through, Nidiffer said, he wonders how the state will compete with his two produce sheds, which also offer space to farmers.
“To sum it up, the rules of the game have changed,” he said. “Three years ago, these were the rules: You're on your own. Good luck. Now the state is going to come back in. We don't want them. I'm scared to death.”
Waiting for a change
Trina Jenkins runs the Jacobs Country Store, which sells produce, eggs and other food and crafts inside the Corbett Building, which sits at the entrance and also contains a restaurant and exhibition kitchen.
She drives about two hours each way between her home in Cheraw and her store at the State Farmers Market, but is wondering how long she can continue.
“It's been tough,” she said. “It's not at all what we anticipated it would be.”
Jenkins said the wholesalers largely leave by 3 p.m., “and it's hard to build a business when they leave early.” She said a lack of signs directing visitors also hurts. “They get off the interstate and say, 'Where is it?' So they leave.”
She said she had three employees when she first opened in 2011, but she was the only one in the store last month.
She has heard plans for a campground, amphitheater and other improvements that would attract more shoppers and visitors but is uncertain when —or even if —they will appear.
“I sense the potential,” she said. “That's the only reason I stay.”
This is one of two sheds on the western side of the State Farmers Market property where retail produce is sold, but it’s difficult to find.×
A recent visit inside the State Farmers Market's Corbett building found the restaurant and grill closed down before 5 p.m., the closing hour listed on its sign. Robert Behre/Staff×
Trina Jenkins runs the Jacobs Country Store in the State Farmers Market's Corbett Building, but she says traffic has fallen off since the market opened and she's just hanging on. Robert Behre/Staff×