Leroy Burnell // The Post and Courier

Jen Wassum, a farmer apprentice, turns soil for planting at Dirthugger Farm on James Island.

Jen Wassum was working in the mutual funds world in her recent past. Now, she's turning her universe upside down. Wassum, 30, aims to be a farmer.

A year ago, her husband's job brought them to Charleston from the Norfolk, Va., area where Wassum grew up. She decided she wanted a career switch, or perhaps to enter graduate school. Her personal interests centered on the outdoors, the environment and food, but a new path was a vague notion at best.

Until she became a volunteer last fall, and then an apprentice, in Lowcountry Local First's Growing New Farmers incubator project.

"When I got out on the farm it became more clear, this is something I really, really love. It went from sort of a gray idea to, this is what I want for my life ... a small farm," Wassum said.

Also becoming more apparent is consumers' increasing appetite for fruits and vegetables grown closer to home. The number of farmers markets nationwide has risen almost twofold since 2004. More local produce is turning up in supermarkets. Branding programs such as Cetrified South Carolina have sprung up and become recognizable.

But the future pipeline of farm-fresh produce remains a worry: The average age of South Carolina farmers has been creeping up for decades. It's pushing 60 years old today, compared with 52 in the late 1970s.

Lowcountry Local First's project is one example of community efforts to establish new farmers and to connect existing farmers with a broader spectrum of buyers.

Another is being driven by the Coastal Conservation League. It plans to hook up small farmers with local restaurants and grocers starting in October. Commonly called a "local food hub," it is the first wholesale operation of its kind in the state.

Have land, will farm

Lowcountry Local First is preparing to embark on a new phase of the Growing New Farmers project, with actual land to farm and equipment at its disposal beginning in the spring.

The organization has offered full- and part-time apprenticeships on area farms since spring 2010. The new aspect is giving those prospective farmers a patch of their own dirt in the form of an incubator farm and training center.

Ten acres at the Clemson Experimental Station on U.S. Highway 17 will be devoted to the incubator, said Jamee Haley, the group's executive director.

Beginning next spring, five or so apprentices will be given the chance to grow vegetables there to see what it takes from planting to harvest.

Haley said not only does Clemson have the infrastructure, such as irrigation, it is contributing expertise and some of its equipment as well.

Lowcountry Local First recently was named the "emerging charity" recipient of the BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival next year. Haley said the money will be used to buy a tractor and build a packing shed at the incubator farm.

Those chosen to farm will be given a limited amount of time on the land, "just like any other incubator," Haley said, most likely three years.

"We are giving them sort of a low point of entry into starting their own farm," she said.

But not all of Clemson's toolbox will be accessible.

"We're not going to make absolutely everything they have available to the farmers," Haley said. "Because when you get used to having everything, then when you're on you own you don't want to do without that piece of equipment."

The organization will ensure the prospective farmers have solid crop and marketing plans that won't compete directly with an existing farm enterprise, Haley added.

With funding coming from grants, the S.C. Department of Agriculture, the festival and money yet to be raised, Haley expects the startup cost to hit about $150,000 in the project's first year.

The existing apprentice program, in its second year, has about 20 participants who are working full or part time with a half dozen area farmers in addition to taking classes.

Teacher assistants also are at some of the farms to ensure the students are getting a well-rounded experience "so they're not just out there picking every day," Haley said.

"That they are learning how to run a CSA, that they're learning how to do farmers market sales, as well as soil and maybe organic pest management," she said.

Apprentices and farmers are part of "growers groups" that meet eight times a year. Farmers get to pick the topic; the idea is to share information and discussion about their best agricultural practices.

Sidi Limehouse of Rosebank Farms on Johns Island is a farmer working with apprentices. While he's 100 percent behind the program, Limehouse thinks only one of his six so far actually has the potential for farming.

"He doesn't mind working," Limehouse said.

Limehouse, 72, has been farming since 1960. Unlike most of the apprentices, the Clemson graduate did have some farm experience growing up. His father grew potatoes and raised cattle at Mullet Hall on Johns Island.

"But I'm still learning. I learn something every day."

Money is the biggest obstacle for those who want to farm today, Limehouse said.

"It takes $300,000 to $400,000 just to get into business. You got to have a tractor, equipment, a secretary, labor, buildings, land. You just can't go out here and make a living on a quarter of an acre. ... Even doing very specialty crops you can't do it."

Haley and Wassum are hopeful yet realistic about the outcome of Growing New Farmers.

"We know that the percentage of people who come out of that and actually become farmers is going to be pretty low. Because they realize how hard it is ... hot, buggy and that it's not glamorous," Haley said.

Wassum, 30, hasn't been deterred so far. A small farm is still her goal, but she sees a lasting impact of the apprentice program either way.

"Even if not new farmers, it's going to be people in the activist side of things, or education or in food entrepreneur opportunities. I think it will leave most of its participants connected to the food community."

Farm to market

The Coastal Conservation League created its own local food mission in April 2010 when it bought an old warehouse at 990 Morrison Drive for $450,000.

The league's GrowFood Carolina initiative plans to officially get down to business there in October, following close to $400,000 spent on remodeling and upfitting. That includes installing a 800-square-foot cooler for storing produce and meeting international green building standards.

The building will house a wholesale operation where small farmers can sell their harvest to local stores and restaurants, said Sara Clow, general manager of GrowFood Carolina. By doing so, the center underpins the league's goals of conservation and supporting agriculture, she said.

People will start hearing more and more about similar initiatives because they are popping up all over the country, Clow said.

"Essentially the food system in the United States has left small- and mid-size growers behind. So local food hubs aim to provide infrastructure to those farmers to create a sustainable rural agrarian economy," she said.

GrowFood Carolina will provide "aggregation," Clow said, meaning the physical space of the warehouse, transportation and handling orders, sales and administrative needs.

She said it shouldn't compete with existing produce companies because GrowFood will be dealing with a different and smaller segment of the market. GrowFood likely will draw only from growers within 120 miles.

"A lot of what I'm doing with the grower is educating them about what to grow," Clow said. "If everybody diversifies just a little bit we'll have a bigger diversity at the retail level and the restaurants."

Initially, the distribution center will deal only in produce but may expand to locally made products such as salsa or pickles.

Also, it will not open at full capacity. The center will operate October through December on a limited scale, close between January and May, then reopen in the expectation of a "robust" market, Clow said. Plans are for the 10,000-square-foot center to be running year round by 2013.

Piggly Wiggly, Whole Foods, Earth Fare and Harris Teeter have expressed in interest in buying from GrowFood, Clow said. She also is connecting with independent retailers, restaurants and chefs.

"I believe we will be well-supported," Clow said.