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The Coastal Conservation League gives local farmers a market

Let it Grow

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Community organizations start with a need. For GrowFood Carolina, that need is the revival of rural South Carolina.

But businesses require a demand. All over the country, grocery stores, farmers markets, and restaurants have seen a spike in the demand for local produce. The Coastal Conservation League (CCL), a nonprofit that protects the S.C. coast, believes sustainable agriculture is the key to the state's rural success. With a need and their demand in place, CCL started GrowFood.

GrowFood Carolina is going to be a wholesale food distribution center where businesses can buy produce from farms within a 100-mile radius of Charleston. Construction on the center is underway. And when it's complete, GrowFood's goal is to unite small-scale, sustainable farms with Charleston's vibrant urban life.

"The impetus for this project came from hearing from farmers that they have difficulty accessing local markets," says Lisa Jones-Turansky, the sustainable agriculture program director for CCL. "Charleston's known as a mecca for good food. But farmers feel there are many obstacles to selling here."

GrowFood Carolina will take care of the details farmers have trouble with — logistical aspects of the business like planning, sales, packaging, and shipping. The Coastal Conservation League hopes that creating a permanent market, a place farmers can consistently sell produce, will help solve the problems they face.

Currently, 40 percent of state residents live in rural areas, but only 20 percent of jobs are there. According to the Census, a higher percent of families in rural South Carolina live in poverty compared to other rural areas in the U.S.

Jones-Turansky predicts that feeding money into farmland will create hundreds of jobs, as well as protect the rural environment. With increased income, farmers will have enough financial security to withstand pressure from developers to sell their land. And if food grown in South Carolina is sold in South Carolina, carbon emissions from distribution will be reduced significantly.

South Carolina has the sixth highest obesity rate in the country. We're second for diabetes. Within the state exists "food injustice," meaning people in low-income areas, many of whom are minorities, have limited access to healthy food. If farms are given an economic zap, it will encourage farmers to expand their practice. This will increase the presence of fresh, nutrient-dense food in the Lowcountry.

The architectural plan for GrowFood Carolina sits on a wooden mantle in the main room of the Coastal Conservation League's historic East Bay Street headquarters. The triangular-shaped building at 900 Morrison Drive will have offices, bathrooms, and a giant warehouse with programmable temperature zones to store fresh produce.

As part of the program, workers will inspect fruits and vegetables for quality standards. They will package the produce to fit the needs of the customer — whether it's for a grocery store or local restaurant.

One of the biggest problems farmers face is how to market themselves. Everyone eats food, but who's going to eat theirs?

"I have to go out of my area to sell to the demographic that will buy organic food," says organic farmer John Culbreath, from C-Breeze Farms in Nesmith, S.C. "Unless I give it away, I won't be able to do anything with it. It's extremely difficult to make a living."

But in a more urban environment, that changes. According to Ronald Wimberley's N.C. State report Food from Our Changing World, 71 percent of Americans are willing to pay more for local produce. The market is out there. An operation like GrowFood will link farmers to the customers.

Jones-Turansky says the center will start moving products in small amounts this summer, piloting the program first to grocery stores. Whole Foods, Piggly Wiggly, and Earth Fare have all expressed interest in buying from GrowFood.

"We're excited about our partnership with GrowFood Carolina because it only strengthens our commitment to supporting local growers and food systems," says Pam Fischette, the marketing team leader for Whole Foods Mt. Pleasant.

And Jones-Turansky thinks GrowFood Carolina will eventually become a brand that signifies good products.

Another possible outcome, if GrowFood takes off, is more restaurants will start to serve local food. Chefs who previously didn't have the capacity to deal with individual farmers will be able order from GrowFood as easily as they would from Sysco. With this, we might see an increase in seasonal menus.

Robert Stehling of Hominy Grill, who's sourced food from local farmers for years, attended a few of GrowFood's preliminary advisory meetings. He is skeptical about the niche the group will fill but is encouraged by GrowFood's mission.

"I not sure I understand what role the building will play," he says. "Will it bring more collard greens? Will it do something the farmers market or Lowcountry Local First isn't already doing?"

Good question.

Lowcountry Local First worked to advise GrowFood during the beginning of its development. LLF, which works to strengthen the local economy and has a Farm Fresh Food initiative, shares a similar vision with GrowFood.

Jamee Haley, executive director of LLF, says GrowFood Carolina may be dependent on LLF programs already in place. Haley says LLF will work to reinforce GrowFood through their pre-existing Growers Groups and Growing New Farmers programs.

"The change that needs to occur will depend on many groups and individuals working collaboratively and not competitively to establish a strong local and regional food economy that is fair and just for all members of our community," she says.

GrowFood's business plan has been modeled off of similar centers, like East Carolina Organics in Pittsboro, N.C. Over time, Jones-Turansky predicts the center will financially sustain itself, but donations from the community at this point are still necessary so GrowFood can take root.

And there are other plans in the works. Eventually, GrowFood wants to help farmers get GAP certified so they can sell to schools. They want to donate overripe food to organizations like Fields to Families or food banks. They are going to organize supply and demand data through software programs, collect information about crop planning and availability, and archive data on food trends.

Maybe this blend of modern technology and old-school farming methods will appeal to the next generation of farmers.

And because GrowFood is nonprofit, Jones-Turansky says they can stay mission-driven.

"Our mission is local," says Jones-Turansky. "We want to be sustainable, and therefore profitable, but we will not deviate from this mission."

It's an ambitious venture. But that's why the Coastal Conservation League picked the name GrowFood Carolina — because it's an imperative that tells Carolina to get busy and grow food.

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