One morning in May 2010, Cathy Forrester met with reporters to show them around a newly acquired space where farmers could sell their produce to local grocers and restaurateurs. Forrester, then the Coastal Conservation League's coordinator of sustainable agriculture programs, was shocked to find black plastic casings littering the floor like a nest of snakes. The casings had been slit open so that someone could remove and sell all the valuable copper wires inside. There were also signs that indigents had taken up residence, including sleeping bags, jars of peanut butter, and open cans of Vienna sausages.
"When we went through that, it was like the police couldn't have been less interested," says Forrester, now the development director at Lowcountry Open Land Trust. CCL has since identified and sealed off several points of entry into the building.
At long last, the project — now called GrowFood Carolina — is nearing completion. The 10,000-square-foot warehouse that CCL showed off to reporters Thursday morning will include 800 square feet of refrigerator space.
CCL Director Dana Beach painted the occasion as a watershed for the downtown industrial sector around the warehouse, located at 990 Morrison Drive.
"It's good for the food side, but it's also good for the neighborhood," Beach said. "This is the up-and-coming neighborhood."
GrowFood, which is slated to open for business by Oct. 1, will not initially be open to the public but will instead serve as a marketplace for farmers within a 120-mile radius to sell their goods to local businesses. General Manager Sara Clow, a New Jersey native who came to Charleston by way of California produce company Purity.Organic, has traveled as far as St. Helena Island and the Pee Dee region talking up the program with farmers in the past two months. Speaking at a lectern near the center of the warehouse, she said the advantages for farmers include umbrella insurance policies and a shared marketplace. Clow does not know how many farmers will market their goods at GrowFood when it opens.
"There's no such thing as a sign-up," she said. "Everything is a handshake. Until they walk in with a box, there's no guarantee."
Among the guests who sampled South Carolina peaches and milled about the fan-cooled room Thursday morning was Giovanni Garatti, an Italian native who worked in New York restaurants and is looking for work in Charleston now. His business card bears the phrase "Chi Mangia Bene, Vive Meglio" ("Who Eats Well, Lives Better"), and while much of his professional experience has been front-of-house, he spends a lot of time in the kitchen at home.
"Whenever I hear about food being grown in a more environmentally friendly way, I'm interested," Garatti said.
The idea of buying local produce, while hardly a new concept, has gained popularity in recent years as a way to curtail the carbon emissions produced in shipping food around the globe. Local produce can also taste fresher than produce that has done some traveling, and some Charleston restaurants, including FIG and Husk, have made it a point of pride to buy their ingredients in-state.
Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers paid his second visit to the site Thursday morning, and he lauded the Fresh on the Menu certification program that started out in a few Charleston restaurants and his since spread to over 300 restaurants around the state. He also mentioned that the Department of Agriculture was considering moving some of its port agricultural inspectors into office space adjacent to the warehouse.
"Agriculture is one of the bright spots in the future of this state," Weathers said.
Beach also spoke of an agricultural renaissance in the works, reminding the assembled crowd of about 40 government employees and food-service leaders that nine of the 10 wealthiest people in late-18th-century America were South Carolina rice brokers. Over 90 percent of food eaten in the state today is produced outside of it, he said, but increasingly, consumers "want to know more about where their food is grown and how it is grown."
The actual refrigeration unit was not installed yet, but its outline was marked in blue chalk on the concrete floor. Toward the end of the conference, workers entered to install skylights as part of a push to earn Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Forrester, who came to the groundbreaking ceremony as a spectator and not as a presenter this time around, leaned back to admire the brilliant light streaming in from the handful of cylindrical skylights that had already been installed.
"It looks great up there," she said. "And there are no black snakes all over the place."