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June 1st, 2017
By Scott Park
Let's start with the good news for farmers in the Upstate: current demand for local food exceeds supply, so there's plenty of room to grow in the market for high-quality agricultural products and protein. However, to have an abundance of local food, you must have plenty of local working farms.
With unprecedented growth projected for the Upstate over the next 25 years, the amount of land developed to accommodate this growth could more than double. Because rural land is so highly prized by developers for new construction, owners of local small to mid-sized farms are facing growing pressure to sell.
A strong foundation for local food starts with protecting high-quality rural farmland. Upstate Forever's land conservation efforts have helped save more than 4,900 acres containing farmland since 1998. Here's a look at why farms are so crucial for our quality of life and rural heritage.
Our current economy has pushed towards manufacturing, while our farms are being converted into residential subdivisions. However, keeping a wide range of options open for available career paths benefits any community. Farming has always been a foundational part of South Carolina, and continues today, but this heritage is quickly losing traction as a viable way to make a living. In order to maintain any future potential for the farming community and related businesses, farmland preservation is key.
Some enterprising new and expanding farms are positioned to serve the local specialized market. These farms direct their products to specifically supply value-added products such as heirloom grains, fruits, and vegetables that are integral to beers, wines, breads, and the menus of local high end restaurants, as examples. These uses from local products have experienced a recent renaissance with the advent of farmers markets, community supported agriculture subscriptions, and support for regional food hubs.
The economic development opportunities for the region and state, as a result of a thriving local food network, are significant. In fact, the potential impact if every South Carolina resident purchased $5 of food each week directly from a farmer in the state would be about $1.2 billion.
The shorter the trip from the farm, the fresher the food. Our local weather and water availability are generally ideal for growing a wide range of crops, oftentimes grown without greenhouses and limited irrigation. Some farms are moving towards using these tools to improve growing capacity and to reduce liability to crop losses, however, with great return.
Retaining the ability to choose to grow and buy our food locally means better food security and resilience from national or international interruption in supply. With the number of steps between harvest and our plates, many challenges exist to maintain freshness and nutrition. Regulations and clean handling processes may be overlooked by the end consumer, but every step to transport food introduces potential contamination and reduced nutrition.
Communities dominated by farmlands create a rich, rural lifestyle that continuously attract new residents for many reasons. Rural living means working farms, including ranches, hay fields, commodity crops; farm machinery on roadways; long distances to cities; and all of the activities associated with farming practices like planting, fertilizing, irrigating, harvesting and transport.
Land values in these communities are generally affordable, although commute time and number of car trips needed to live in the area are significantly higher for new residential subdivision dwellers. Oftentimes, these types of developments have replaced a farm, which stresses transportation, water use, sewage volume, police and fire protection, while infringing on nearby farm operations. Stronger land use planning is needed to create balance in rural communities.
You can support local farmers by buying local at the grocery store or farmer’s market or from the regional food hub. Food hubs are a great way to ease the stress of marketing, distribution, and processing that small farmers may face.
A local food hub is a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail, and institutional demand.
The Coastal Conservation League launched GrowFood Carolina, the state's first large-scale local food hub, in 2011. Since opening, GrowFood has grown from marketing for five producers to more than 75, and has returned more than $3 million to South Carolina farmers.
The Upstate's Swamp Rabbit Cafe and Grocery, which also opened in 2011, has become a hub for local organic foods and artisan products. Located right next to the Swamp Rabbit Trail, the store has been a frontrunner in the local food movement in the region.
Another food hub, Feed & Seed, will be opening its doors soon. The Feed & Seed facility will be located on Wellborn Street in downtown Greenville, also next to the Swamp Rabbit Trail.
These Upstate regional food hubs are a big step forward to supporting small- to mid-size farmers, since it bolsters their access to larger markets. It may even help some retain their family farms despite development pressure.
Scott Park is the Land Conservation Director at Upstate Forever and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.