The variety of methods for product distribution parallels the diversity of crops. The end goal is the same: to provide quality produce to consumers at a price fair to all parties. However, the method of doing so is where farmers can get creative! While some farmers enjoy pitching the quality of their products to customers at a farmer’s market, some prefer selling their produce directly to food hubs that handle distribution so that they spend more time in the field. With several options for channeling their product, farmers customize their model to fit their personalities and goals.

This year our Growing New Farmers Program participants have spent the first 3 months focusing on planning and preparing for various markets for distribution in the Charleston area. Project-based experiential learning opportunities are planned to allow participants to learn and practice what each of these markets require of a farm business and help them decide which market is best for them in the future. From planning to harvest to post harvest handling and packaging, farmers have specific practices for navigating that chain depending on where they sell. Program participants work in collaborative groups to grow and tend to plants on our teaching acre and prepare produce orders for restaurants, wholesalers, and farmers markets according to their expectations and criteria. At lectures and work days, community partners and experts offer insight into best business practices and potential pitfalls. Thus far, we have prepared orders for Limehouse Produce (wholesale distributor), GrowFood Carolina (South Carolina’s first food hub), and Lowcountry Street Grocery (pop-up mobile farmers’ market). The project with Lowcountry Street Grocery provided real-world, hands-on experience in both harvesting and marketing, showcasing over 300 pounds of produce grown on our plot.

Limehouse ProduceIn 1945, Limehouse Produce opened their doors to allow local farmers to auction off their goods. Their rapid growth was proportional to the rise of culinary influence in the Holy City. Today, Limehouse is one of the major produce distributors in the Lowcountry. Our visit of the main facility included a tour of the massive coolers, stocked with fresh produce ready for daily distribution. While winding through their towers of tomatoes and onions, we came to the cooler where boxes of our eggplant and peppers, picked up earlier by one of Limehouse’s refrigerated trucks from our teaching plot, waited to be reunited with us for a real-talk quality check and comparison to large scale producers. After cracking open a couple of boxes of eggplant, we learned the importance of packing produce of consistent sizes and quality and that as organic growers we stood up to the competition. This is the clearest difference between packaging for wholesale distribution and farmers markets. There is more room for variation in size and color patterns in farmers markets, while consistency is key for wholesale.

Not only does Limehouse distribute produce, they also help farmers with planning based on demand of buyers and quantity of stock. By doing this, Limehouse helps to ensure that farmers are getting top dollar for their crops as well as increasing diversity of farmers’ crop portfolios. Weston Fennel, their Lead Buyer, explained their commitment to prioritizing local farmers through stories of helping to develop products and packaging to compete with national farms, a barrier often faced by local producers. This dedication has led to increased sales, and wider markets for places like Mepkin Abbey, Palmetto Pastures, and Geechie Boy Mill.

GrowFood CarolinaGrowFood Carolina opened its doors in 2011 as South Carolina’s first food hub. Their knowledgeable General Manager, Sara Clow, and Operations Manager, Benton Montgomery, took our class on a tour of the facility. The premise of a food hub, Clow explained, is to provide a place for farmers to bring their packaged produce for consignment and aggregation and let GrowFood do the rest! GrowFood stays in close contact with local restaurants and retailers to ensure that they get the produce they requested and that the farmers receive the best price possible.

During our time at the GrowFood facility, we toured a few of the large coolers full of different produce brought to them by local farmers. Sara and Benton explained the importance of communication and relationship building with the farmers they support. They visit each farm that they work with and have discussions about what they can and cannot sell for them and provide advice on crop planning as well. Our visit offered insight for standard packaging sizes, common rookie mistakes, and helped get us ready for a big order we had to fill for Lowcountry Street Grocery the next day.

Lowcountry Street Grocery market
The Lowcountry Street Grocery (LSG) has a different approach to getting produce to market. Their mission is to provide affordable, local food to Charleston residents in varying neighborhoods via a retro-fitted refrigerated school bus that serves as a mobile farmers market. Participants of the Growing New Farmers Program experienced the entire process of harvesting to sell at LSG’s first full-scale pop-up market. Right before the market, we set off into the fields and harvested grade A and B produce, including cherry tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplant, cured onions, blackberries, cut flowers, and basil. The produce was prepared for packaging accordingly, weighed, labeled and packed up for market. The ratings of the produce were determined by the size, coloration and condition of the produce. Often the misconception is that grade B produce is less than fresh or edible. The fact is that our entire harvest was as fresh and delicious as could be.

Market day! Everyone jumped on board with helping set up the displays and it ended up looking amazing. Having an eye-catching, multi-dimensional display can make a big difference in drawing customers in. Equally, if not even more important, is building good rapport with your patrons, so our program participants interacted with customers and provided samples at the pop-up market held in the parking lot of Park Cafe. The following day, a second market was held in the Union Heights neighborhood, where Lowcountry Street Grocery offered what remained of the produce at a reduced rate. Any remaining product was combined for what Lowcountry Street Grocery is calling “Community Supported Grocery,” single bags of a variety of products available to customers on a first come first served basis.

These recent projects have provided a unique first hand experience in prepping for different markets and will undoubtedly be a great influence in the decisions that these food systems leaders make regarding their future endeavors. Looking ahead, the second half of the program will focus on crop planning, record keeping, and financial management, all leading up to a six-week farmers market project. We can’t wait to dive in and share what we learn as we move on to the next phase of the program. Stay tuned for more exciting updates!

Contributed by Emmaline Spier Camposano
Eat Local Intern

Brian Wheat
Growing New Farmers Program Manager