Southern SARE From the Field Profile
Charleston Food Hub Brings Efficiency to the Market
In 2011, when Beaufort, S.C., farmer Urbie West was seeking new opportunities to get his produce to local consumers, a friend pointed him to GrowFood Carolina, a wholesaler that distributes local produce to businesses in nearby Charleston. GrowFood, which was newly launched, proved to be just what West needed.
“They’ve taken everything extra we’ve produced,” says West, a fifth-generation farmer who raises produce on 45 acres and does most of his business through a large community supported agriculture (CSA) program. What is more, he adds, GrowFood gets him a premium price: West earns up to 25 percent more than he used to earn through conventional distributors.
GrowFood Carolina, which received a 2010 SARE grant to conduct pre-launch market research and outreach to farmers, businesses and the community, is an example of a food hub, an increasingly common entity in the food system. Farmers deliver produce to GrowFood’s downtown Charleston warehouse and GrowFood distributes it to local grocery stores and restaurants—mostly high-end businesses that will pay the premium farmers like West seek.
The potential for this model is considerable: Only 10 percent of produce eaten by South Carolinians is grown in the state.
The 40 farmers currently in GrowFood’s network keep whatever their produce sells for, minus a 20 percent fee that covers GrowFood’s services. Along with distribution, GrowFood staff promote farmers’ stories and values, build an extensive customer base, and work tirelessly with individual farmers to ensure that together they can supply customers with what they need, when they need it.
“Chefs are just so excited because really what we’re doing is building efficiencies in the market,” says GrowFood General Manger Sara Clow. “They still have direct relationships with some growers, but if all 40 of our growers were trying to show up at their back door every day, it wouldn’t work.”
Edward Hudson, of Rowesville, S.C., echoes that sentiment, from the farmer’s perspective. “We couldn’t do it without them,” he says. “There are only so many hours in the day; you can’t market everything the way you want to.”
In many ways, Hudson and West are typical GrowFood farmers, all of whom reside within 120 miles of Charleston. Both run highly diversified produce operations, rely heavily on CSAs as a marketing outlet, and are eager to expand the variety and volume of crops they market through GrowFood.
This enthusiasm is a key to the economic sustainability of GrowFood, a nonprofit. Their goal is to shed their reliance on grant funding by growing annual gross sales to $2 million by 2017, Clow says. In 2012, they made $260,000 in gross sales. Along with cultivating more demand in the community, their plan for growth includes “not just finding new farmers, but also growing the farmers we’re already working with,” she says. For example, GrowFood staff work closely with partner farmers on yearly crop planning to help them take full advantage of existing market demand.
During their SARE-funded project, GrowFood sought to assist farmers with technical support, regulatory compliance, beneficial planning and community education. In addition, Clow meets regularly with farmers to discuss strategies for planting the crops she needs to meet her clients’ demand. “We still need to do a better job of planting rotations of certain crops, because GrowFood seems to have year-round markets for some things,” West says.
Want more information? See the related SARE grant(s) CS10-078, GrowFood Carolina.
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