The Charleston Farmers Market is closed until April, but that doesn’t mean the region’s run out of locally grown food. To the contrary, “there’s a huge bounty available,” says Patrick Kelly, co-owner of Sea Islands Local Outlet. “Right now, we have citrus, tons of leafy greens, hydroponic yellow tomatoes, taro root, turmeric, edible flowers and sweet potatoes.”
But rather than hawk those items in a retail setting, Sea Islands Local Outlet is selling its produce, bread, cheese, meat and seafood through a website. The 3-year-old service, which entered the Charleston market last spring, represents the current vanguard of locavore shopping: Food activists hail the model as liberating for farmers and eaters alike.
“It’s almost scary how many of these things there are,” Red Tomato food hub founder Michael Rozyne last month told The New York Times, referring to the recent surge of virtual farmers markets.
In the Lowcountry, though, Sea Islands Local Outlet (SILO) is the only online marketplace featuring South Carolina-grown kiwis, butterbeans, persimmons, wheatgrass and cayenne peppers. And because SILO is a GrowFood Carolina partner, its inventory includes items previously available only to wholesale buyers.
“Every day we get calls and visits from local food lovers who want to shop at GrowFood, but we have to turn them away,” general manager Sara Clow says. “SILO is the answer.”
The impetus to start SILO came from Kelly’s experience as a farmers market manager in Beaufort, which was home to seven different markets. “It was really almost oversaturated,” Kelly recalls. Farmers were forced to harvest on a daily basis, and then spend hours minding a booth instead of tending their crops. While only two of the markets had a steady customer base, farmers who wanted to remain competitive felt compelled to appear at all seven venues.
“We decided the priority was going to be the farmers,” Kelly says of SILO’s design. “Farmers first.”
SILO combines elements of traditional markets, CSAs and co-ops. Its members pay a subscription fee; an annual membership costs $50 (guests can also place orders for a $5 surcharge.) The weekly ordering period runs from Sunday morning through Wednesday at noon; Charleston customers can pick up their purchases on Daniel Island or at the GrowFood warehouse on Thursday afternoons.
Kelly says more than 900 people in the Beaufort area have registered with SILO, although not all of them are active participants.
One of the drawbacks of the virtual market is shoppers don’t meet the growers, an interaction that farmers markets promote heavily. But SILO tries to make up for those missed exchanges by organizing grower-led events for members and inviting growers to pick-up sessions.
The SILO website was built to facilitate expansion to Columbia, but Kelly says he and his partners — wife Lauren and friends Garrett and Katie Budds — want to establish a Charleston presence first.
“It’s very exciting, and we hope to help them grow the market even further,” Clow says.
For more information about SILO, visit silo-beaufort.com.