Here's the thing about farm economics: the laws of supply and demand are compounded, or sometimes trounced altogether, by the unruly laws of nature. Heat, drought, flood, hurricanes, pests, drainage ... the whole nine acres. But perhaps most frustrating of all — contending with the laws of parking, especially in the wild west of downtown Charleston. At least when you're a small or mid-size farmer trying to get your product sold.
"We'll pull up to deliver at Husk, and there's the Limehouse truck, the GrowFood truck, Blackbird Farms' big van, Joseph Fields' delivery guy, the Ambrose van, and here I come in my mini-van with a kid in the back seat, and no place to park," says Skinny Melton of Lowland Farms, who'd clearly rather be in the fields than doing laps around Queen Street.
Same for John Warren, an urban refugee (from Brooklyn no less), who didn't trade the subway for sea island sweat at his Spade and Clover farm just to be fighting traffic again, lugging his gorgeous ginger root and freshly dug turmeric to downtown restaurants that can't seem to get enough of it. And ditto Harleston Townes of Rooting Down Farms.
Melton, Townes, and Warren are three relatively new to the game, small-scale farmers on Johns Island; all three digging the agricultural life, but not-so-much digging the part about cultivating markets and logistically figuring out how to connect the supply to the demand and make it worth their while. While each does utilize larger distributors like GrowFood and Limehouse Produce, they often don't have the volume of supply to meet their requirements. Plus, they're small enough, and smart enough, to be nimble and cut to the chase.
"The way to get the most money for your crop is direct sales, to cut out the middle man," says Melton, who specializes in sustainable farming methods using organically certified and heirloom seeds. "And obviously you can be more productive the more time you spend in the fields and not driving around town. Sometimes it's ridiculous, me and John would be at the same place delivering at the same time."
And so this trio has begun doing what chauffeur-weary parents have been doing for generations, joining forces and carpooling, more or less. Only instead of carting the kids to ballet, they're taking carrots and kale to restaurants, and then some.
"It's an unofficial, loosely formed co-op. I think egos and lack of time keeps us from making it more organized and more official," explains Townes, who is more than happy to piggy back on Melton's established relationships with 12 or so restaurants, and pay him a percentage of sales for handling the invoices and orders. Plus Melton's Lowland Farms is more centrally located on River Road, so he naturally became the point person.
Melton is more blunt: "We all have an independent streak. So it's more like an uncooperative cooperative. It's a great goal for people to work together, but the reality is a little trickier," he admits.
And Warren clarifies even further: "I'd say it's not really a co-op but more of a wheeling and dealing kind of thing. More just recognizing demand and figuring out how we can best fill it. Me and Harleston, we don't really get along from a personality angle, but we've learned a lot from each other and respect each other. If somebody needs something, that's an opportunity to help them and help you. That's what comes from being a small farmer."
In addition to delivery consolidation and some loose agreements on who-grows-what, the unofficial, uncooperative cooperative helps these three farmers on other levels. For example, when its time to get potato seed from North Carolina, they'll go in together on the order to get a better price and make sure they're each ordering different varieties. They also divvy up who holds down the fort at the numerous farmers markets — another huge time suck away from the fields.
"If I don't have enough kale to fill an order, I might mix in some of Harleston's to make the 15 pounds," says Melton. The fact that each of the three farmers shares the same high quality standards and are consistent in the way they clean and package their produce makes the mix-and-match possible. "We sometimes supplement our individual CSA orders with each other's stuff, too." So if you order a 20-pound bag from Townes, you might end up with some of Melton's fresh eggs, or a lucky Lowland Farms CSA customer might be treated to some of Townes' radishes.
"Basically we're a group of farmers that deal direct with chefs. A lot of us out here farming aren't big enough to sell to Limehouse or GrowFood, so we're kind of caught in the middle there," says Townes. Besides getting a better price for their produce, establishing direct relationships with area chefs lets them "put our finger on the pulse, knowing season to season what they're looking for," adds Townes. "Maybe that's why we're doing it anyways. I love to cook; I've got a lot of respect for the chefs, and keeping top of mind the trends, seasons and flavors should make you a better grower."
Warren agrees, and appreciates the "high degree of being able to cater to the needs of different chefs, without much loss of revenue." But to him the "uncooperative" is more than Econ 101. "Really, the underlying principal is just helping each other out, because farming is hard, you know."