At least 80 percent of the local population could be fed with food grown within 50 miles of Charleston, reports a study by professors Andrew Zumkehr and J. Elliott Campbell from the University of California. But according to Sara Clow, general manager of GrowFood Carolina, a local food hub that works to support 80 farms throughout the state, less than 10 percent of what we eat in South Carolina is grown here. While interest in locally grown products has definitely increased in recent years, the reality of the state's eating habits is much less appetizing.
Officially launched in 2011, GrowFood Carolina began by working with five local producers, with the goal of providing small- to mid-size growers assistance with marketing, warehousing, and distribution. The idea for the food hub started when the Coastal Conservation League realized that much of the state's rural farmland was being converted as small growers found it increasingly difficult to hold on to their farms. Since GrowFood was founded, it has continued to expand across the state, connecting producers with buyers and drawing attention from some of the nation's top leaders in agriculture, like USDA Undersecretary of Marketing and Regulatory Programs Edward Avalos.
Avalos now oversees the same programs that he and his family used while working on their farm in southern New Mexico. These initiatives, such as the Farmers Market Promotion Program, are aimed at helping the 163,675 farms throughout the United States that are marketing foods locally. But as consumer interest in local products has risen, so too have the challenges faced by small growers in the United States.
"When all the dust settles at the end of the day, it's about keeping agricultural land and agricultural production," said Avalos during a recent visit to GrowFood's warehouse facility in Charleston. "It's about keeping the farmer on the farm, the rancher on the ranch. It's about supporting our rural communities and stimulating our rural economies. That's what it's about."
Since the early '90s, the percentage of food imported into the United States has more than doubled, while the total amount of food consumed by Americans grew by 34 percent. Chief among the challenges faced by smaller farms racing to meet demand and compete with larger operations are marketing in an increasingly competitive economy and keeping up with national and state regulations. Avalos argues that every local producer needs a partner, and in South Carolina, that partner is GrowFood.
"They're addressing some major, major challenges for a lot of small growers," said Avalos. "One, they are providing a place to sell the product. That's huge. Two, they are trying very hard to get the best prices possible for that farmer, so that they can survive from year to year. They put in infrastructure — a warehouse, cold storage, distribution to retailers — so the potential for growth is there."
When the Coastal Conservation League began looking at what could be done to help small farmers stay on their land, they quickly identified the gap that was prohibiting locally grown products from reaching South Carolina buyers. Though local growers were able to connect with consumers directly through area farmers markets, these types of transactions averaged less than 1 percent of total agricultural sales in the country between 2002-2012, according to the USDA.
What small- to mid-size farmers needed was a way to better reach wholesale buyers and maintain these relationships in a way that was profitable to all involved. By providing a centralized hub for farmers and offering distribution and storage services, GrowFood has been able to help put the smaller producers in a better position to compete with the corporations.
"Wholesale is just a very different customer. They need the product to have a lot more shelf life. They need certain food-safety guidelines. They need all these different things, so infrastructure was incredibly important," says Clow. "The programs and services that we work with on the farms are equally as important. That, in the simplest view, is sales, marketing, and distribution."
With many farmers working second jobs to support their families, growers have little time to handle promoting their product in addition to maintaining a quality crop. At the same time, local restaurants, grocery stores, and institutions can't manage dealing one on one with 80 small growers across the state to locally source each individual ingredient or piece of produce. By serving as a middle man for the producers and buyers, GrowFood not only facilitates sales, but helps growers align supply with demand.
"Twice a year, we go through our product list. We know which farmers are growing what, and maybe somebody was growing a lot of broccoli, but we need more cauliflower, so we build more cauliflower into the system," says Clow. "We work with the growers. We work with the demand side, and we essentially, at the end of a very long Excel spreadsheet project, hand the producer a crop production plan, which they have had a ton of input on."
While the ability to connect with wholesalers is a definite challenge for small producers, the price of products can also prove to be a burden when a crop reaches market. With some of the lowest food prices in the developed world, many Americans may be unwilling or even unable to pay more for locally sourced products. Whole Foods, a retailer known for higher prices and priding itself on quality organic products, has fallen out of favor with many customers and experienced a serious drop on the stock market since the end of 2013.
Even as disposable income has risen among Americans since the '70s, the percentage of that money going to purchase food has trended downward, according to the USDA, which also estimates that 31 percent of food available for consumption at the retail and consumer levels in the United States in 2010 was wasted. Meanwhile, the continued presence of food deserts in local communities leaves many with no access to fresh food at all.
With all of this in mind, it falls to the consumers who can afford to pay a little more to decide — how much is it worth to support South Carolina's small farmers?