South Carolina's small farms could be a key to curing the economic ills of the state's rural communities by focusing on food for local consumption, according to a long-awaited state Agricultural Department study released Thursday.

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The study calls for a nearly $10 million, three-year program to organize food nodes across the state where farmers would cooperate in growing produce for local consumption.

That food would be funneled to local markets and to three or four food hubs around the state to collect, market and distribute the produce to restaurants, groceries and other food outlets.

The food hub proposal is based on the success of the state's only current hub, GrowFood Carolina, which gathers produce from dozens of Lowcountry farms for distribution to Charleston's restaurants. Many of those restaurants specialize in using seasonal, locally grown produce.

Establishing a statewide food hub system to help small farmers efficiently and economically market and distribute their produce was one of the recommendations made early this year in The Post and Courier's series “Forgotten South Carolina,” about the state's deep disparities in education, health and economic opportunity. Most of the counties in Forgotten South Carolina are rural ones along the I-95 corridor and the Mill Crescent between metropolitan Columbia and the bustling I-85 corridor.

The Agriculture Department study, called “Making Small Farms Into Big Business,” found that the state's small farms “have more potential to grow the economy, create jobs and build healthier communities.”

The study notes that South Carolinians buy $11 billion in food each year, but more than 90 percent of that comes from out-of-state. The study says the state's farmers could tap some of that by taking advantage of the growing demand to buy seasonal local produce.

The study estimates farmers could snag $1.2 billion a year.

A three-year effort

Hugh Weathers, state Commissioner of Agriculture, said in a statement that his department would develop a strategic plan based on the study to begin doing that and “expand market opportunities for farmers across the state.”

He said he expects the plan to be developed in the coming weeks, and a three-year, $9.85 million effort to execute it would begin this spring.

Weathers did not say if he would be asking the state Legislature to provide any of the money, only that it probably would come from both private and public sources. And a final decision on the amount of money necessary would have to await completion of the strategic plan.

The study calls for:

Establishing 15-20 food nodes, clusters of farms around the state that collaborate in what and how to grow produce. For example, some clusters could be organic and specialize in certain produce and livestock.

Establishing three food hubs to collect, market and distribute farm products. In addition to the GrowFood hub already operating in Charleston, the study envisions possible hubs in Spartanburg, Greenville, Horry County, Florence and Columbia.

Using the state Agriculture Department's Certified SC Grown campaign to encourage consumers to increase spending on local food by $5 a week.

Educating low-income and rural South Carolinians about the importance of eating more fruits and vegetables.

Beef-up rural income

Dana Beach, head of the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League, started GrowFood in 2010 with about $1 million in grants and loans to prove that such a hub could successfully operate and help improve the businesses of local small farms.

Beach called the study “one of the best documents that has been produced in the state to promote rural prosperity in decades.”

He said he was pleased the League's GrowFood experiment worked and helped lead to this expansion effort by the Agriculture Department. “It is tremendously exciting.”

Lisa Jones Turansky, who helps run GrowFood as the Conservation League's director of Sustainable Agriculture, said the study is “the first step in moving South Carolina to the forefront of the local food movement. Our farmers are growing some of the best food in the world, and our state's key decision makers have taken note.”

“With this study, we have the blueprint for improving the local food system,” she said. “It is now a matter of continuing the work into implementation. We need consumers demanding local food. We need citizens electing officials who value a commitment to agriculture.”

Jack Shuler, president of the Palmetto Agribusiness Council, which is cooperating in the effort, said in a statement: “This is the most massive project ever undertaken to develop a local food supply in South Carolina. Implementation of the results of the study can increase significantly the income of rural counties in our state.”

Hugh C. Lane, Jr., chairman of the board for the Bank of South Carolina, is also collaborating. He said in a statement: “I have been very concerned about the plight of rural South Carolina and this study gives us an opportunity to allow South Carolina farms to capitalize on the 'Grow Fresh – Eat Fresh phenomenon,' which the public is demanding. This should lead to more jobs and more revenue going into rural South Carolina.”

Reach Doug Pardue at 937-5558