At the Trident Technical College horticulture program, part of the educational experience is getting to know the local industry. It’s important to not only network with industry professionals but to also know what goods and services are available, not only for employment opportunities but as consumers as well.
A professor once told me that you don’t have to be smart if you know smart people. There’s some truth to that. After teaching horticulture for 20 years, I have gotten to know some very smart people in the Lowcountry. Recently, one of them is at GrowFood Carolina.
GrowFood Carolina is a local food hub that connects farmers to buyers. It was started by the Coastal Conservation League in 2011 as a result of the Food and Agriculture program to preserve Lowcountry farms.
I was familiar with their mission of serving local farmers, but it wasn’t until I met the general manager, Sara Clow, at the fifth annual Mushroom Gathering that I really understood what and how they were doing it. This event featured Tradd Cotter, a South Carolina native and well-known mushroom expert, and featured local restaurants serving mushroom-inspired dishes. The food was well worth the price of admission. And Clow was generous enough to host our horticulture students a few months later.
Prior to 2011, when GrowFood Carolina was opened, the Coastal Conservation League identified a need to help connect farmers to markets where they could sell their product. Growing crops isn’t always the most challenging part of farming. Sometimes it’s selling it. There are many options for farmers, such as local farmers markets and community-supported agriculture. But there are some farmers who just want to grow and aren’t as interested or have the time to deal with marketing, sales and distribution.
GrowFood Carolina was developed as sort of the farmer’s agent. Every year, Sara and her staff develop a crop production plan to align product demand with local farm produce. If every farmer grew squash, the market would saturate. GrowFood Carolina helps diversify production by ordering various crops from participating farmers.
The warehouse is on Morrison Drive in Charleston, making it a reasonable trip for Lowcountry farmers. When GrowFood Carolina first opened, they only sourced produce from a 120-mile radius. Since then, they have expanded their reach across South Carolina and even serve some North Carolina farmers.
GrowFood Carolina not only provides farmers with sales but also marketing, warehousing and distribution. This is especially valuable for small farms that don’t have access to efficient storage facilities. Not only will you find their local produce being used in downtown restaurants, but grocery stores such as Earth Fare, Harris Teeter and Whole Foods. Often, the produce is identified as being locally produced and sometimes even how many miles away the farm is located from the store. As a consumer, you are investing not only in a local farmer when you purchase their product but the community as well.
GrowFood Carolina knows exactly where their crops come from. This is referred to as single-source identification. One advantage of single source identification is food safety. Last November, there was a nationwide recall on romaine lettuce due to an E. coli outbreak. That’s a lot of lettuce coming off the shelves. However, if there were any problems with produce going through the GrowFood Carolina warehouse, Sara and her staff know which farm it came from and can initiate a recall within a day. It’s time efficient and effective without the need for a widespread recall.
Currently, GrowFood Carolina services 85 farmers who provide more than 350 unique products. And their crop production plan continues to be diverse and consistent so that Lowcountry residents can know where their food comes from and keep their investments local.
For more information on what they do and the next mushroom gathering, go to coastalconservationleague.org.