As a link in the Lowcountry’s food chain, one that gets local produce into the hands of chefs and into stores, Sara Clow knows the rigors of farming more than most people.
At a time in her career when she decided to get back into food, she left her job as a statistical analyst for a small hedge fund in California and took off for New Zealand. There, she labored on small farms for six months as part of the international WWOOF program: Willing Workers on Organic Farms.
What did she learn?
“How hard it is. Digging potatoes by hand was one of the harder things,” says Clow, 39. “The smell. Kiwis use a lot of kelp compounds for fertilization, and they stink to high heaven!”
The experience was a puzzle piece in what eventually became Clow’s big picture, moving to Charleston two years ago to become the first manager of GrowFood Carolina.
Conceived by the Coastal Conservation League, GrowFood is a wholesale produce distributor that started up in October 2011. The idea seemed sort of pie-in-the-sky when the league first announced the plan, but by the numbers, the operation is proving its worth.
GrowFood has grown from five farmers to more than 30 in just 17 months. Produce is being shipped out to nearly 100 restaurants, caterers and food trucks. Whole Foods, Earth Fare and Harris Teeter are among its customers.
Outside its warehouse on Morrison Drive — the building with the big farming mural painted on its side — GrowFood has built a large demonstration garden, thanks to a donation from Weight Watchers.
It also is installing a second large walk-in cooler that gives the warehouse another temperature zone for storage.
This week, GrowFood has been on public display as part of the 2013 BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival. The festival selected the nonprofit as its Community Culinary Partner, which gives GrowFood’s mission exposure to thousands of people.
Dana Beach, the league’s executive director, says Clow has been the “perfect person” to get GrowFood off the ground. “If she did not exist, we would have to invent her.”
Building a sustainable local food system as GrowFood is trying to do may be a great idea, but if it’s not successful financially, “all we’re doing is subsidizing local farmers,” Beach says.
Clow was able to execute the idea in fully realized form, he says. “What she brought to it was passion and charisma but also the ability to work on the fine details. ... She is a workhorse, over there 10 to 12 hours a day, taking phone calls from farmers at 6 in the morning.”
She herself gives much of the credit to her small staff, especially warehouse manager Benton Montgomery. “I can’t say enough how awesome the team is.”
Clow, who was raised in the New York City suburb of Berkeley, N.J., has a background and an unusually varied career that have given her the tools to run an operation like GrowFood.
For one, her mother is a caterer. Clow came up in the business and once had her own catering outfit after college while living in Telluride, Colo. Her father, who sold fine china, is an amateur mixologist.
Cooking is a passion. “I would’ve loved to be a chef,” Clow says, but she is neither a night owl nor a person who likes cooking under pressure.
Still, she’s a junkie of the food and beverage culture. “I love to waitress. I love the idea of giving people a fabulous experience through food.”
A 1995 graduate of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., with a double major in psychology and sociology, Clow is a self-confessed “statistical geek” who gets turned on by a Bloomberg financials machine.
The former all-state soccer player managed the office of a sporting goods company, worked for a general contractor and started a business providing marketing and accounting services to small companies.
And she is a master networker.
Living in San Francisco a decade ago, she found her way back into the food business from the hedge fund through her landlord. The landlord had a friend who had a friend who was a chef (still a friend today), whose mother-in-law was a consultant in the organic food industry. She became Clow’s mentor.
Diane Joy Goodman worked as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., during the setup of the National Organic Program. “She pretty much knew everyone in the organic world,” Clow says. “I would not be who I am without her.”
Landing a job in 2006 with an organic grower, Lagier Ranches in Escalon, Calif., provided an entree into the agricultural world. That eventually led Clow to Pacific Organic Produce, the largest organic tree fruit market in the world at the time. Clow worked with growers across the world and major retailers such as Whole Foods, Safeway and Kroger. She started as a sales assistant and ended up as domestic commodity manager and heading up the company’s new juice company.
Then former college roommate and Charleston native Sarah Hamlin Hastings got in touch. Hastings’ brother, William Cogswell, was on the board of the Coastal Conservation League. He began picking Clow’s brain informally on the GrowFood concept.
“He asked me to help him create a job description and send it out to my network,” Clow says. Once the league finalized it and sent the description back to her, “I literally had a physical reaction to it.
“The most appealing thing to me was getting back to working within a radius,” she says, referring to GrowFood’s 120-mile sourcing territory. “I am entreprenurial. It was an opportunity to start something from the ground.”
Arriving here in June 2011, her first impressions of Charleston were good, starting with the restaurant food and culture. She also found a comraderie that appealed to her.
“I liked how tight-knit the food community here is, especially the chefs,” Clow says.
People also made it easy for her to connect with producers, giving her names of those to contact.
She says she had an “incredible feeling of support” for the GrowFood project.
Clow sees three ways that GrowFood can have the biggest impact on the community: by contributing to the economic health of local farmers, the health of the environment and physical health of the community.
“The thing I’m most proud of is when one farmer refers us to another because we’re doing a good job.”
Carol Williams of Millgrove Farms in Georgetown, who runs the farm with her husband, Ben, says working with GrowFood has been positive all around.
The farm, which specializes in heirloom vegetables and is transitioning to organic growing, was one of the first farmers to get on board with GrowFood.
“Sara’s contribution has been fabulous. She came with a great deal of knowledge, especially in organics. She’s been helpful with that. She has fabulous marketing experience,” Williams says.
While an initiative like this doesn’t sprout overnight, “Sara has really put it together and made it work.”