GrowFood Carolina helps put Beaufort County produce on Charleston plates

pdonohue@beaufortgazette.comMarch 27, 2013 

Jim and Nancy Rathbun of Lady's Island were hardly farmers when they arrived in 2006 at the 30-acre tract off Johnson Landing Road to which Jim's father had dedicated the last 40 years of his life.

Situated on the banks of the Coosaw River, the farm once was lined with rows of lush pecan, pear and persimmon trees but fell into disrepair upon Col. James Rathbun's death in 1993, despite the efforts of well-meaning friends who tried to help manage the property. Left behind were unharvested and largely neglected groves and a barn full of aged and broken farming equipment.

Newly retired, the husband-and-wife team decided to restore the farm to its former glory. But they were unsure who, aside from those who frequent roadside stands and farmers markets, would purchase the fruits of their back-breaking labor.

The answer was some of Charleston's talented chefs.

Brickyard Point Farms, as Jim and Nancy have christened it, is one of a handful of local farms that has teamed with GrowFood Carolina, a Charleston-based wholesale produce distributor started in October 2011 to connect local farmers with the Holy City's restaurants, caterers, food trucks and even grocery stores.

Since they began working with GrowFood, the Rathbuns have sold hundreds of pounds of persimmons, pomegranates, pecans as well as Meyer lemons, which were turned into limoncello, an Italian lemon liqueur typically produced in southern Italy, by chef Eric Huff of Burwell's Stone Fire Grill and served to patrons at the Charleston Wine and Food Festival earlier this month.

"We were a couple of city farmers who thought they could make it work," Nancy Rathbun said. "And it did. My husband can make anything grow. ... We have 340 trees, and the farm is alive again. It's really amazing."

GrowFood officials work with area farmers to grow certain crops, which are delivered to a warehouse in Charleston and, from there, to the more than 100 restaurants, including nationally renowned establishments such as FIG, McCrady's, Husk and The Hominy Grill, as well as up-and-coming hotspots such as The Green Door, The Ordinary and Butcher & Bee.

Sara Clow, the program's general manager, said coordination is involved in determining what and when to grow.

"We're really trying to align supply and demand," Clow said. "So there's a lot of planning and consultation that happens with our growers before the first seeds are even planted based on the orders that we are taking from the restaurants."

Urbie West, owner of Rest Park Farm in Seabrook, said there is little chance his vegetables would be in Charleston kitchens without GrowFood, which expects to sell about $425,000 in produce this year.

"I would have had no way to access that world and those restaurants," West said. "But now, we have chefs in Charleston saying, 'I want Rest Park Farms squash.' ... It's been tremendous for local farms like ours. We get good pricing for our product, and it stays in the local community."

West also supplies to Beaufort's Breakwater Restaurant and Bricks on Boundary, he said.

The program hasn't only been beneficial to local farmers.

Participating chefs say the program helps them buy the local ingredients they seek without having to go to great lengths to get it. GrowFoods collects and stores the produce in a downtown warehouse and distributes the vegetables, fruits and herbs to the restaurants upon request.

"With GrowFood, we are getting a lot more ingredients from the Upstate and the other parts of the Lowcountry that we just wouldn't otherwise have access to," said Cory Burke, chef and owner of The Green Door in Charleston. "We could drive to these farms to buy from some of these smaller farms, but that just wouldn't be practical for us."

"I can also put in a request for something I'd like to see grown," Burke added. "I've gotten some of my daikon radish, ginger and a lot of our cabbage that way."

Although managing the program's ballooning popularity can be a challenge -- it started with just five farmers and now receives product from more than 30 -- GrowFood is doing what it was intended to do: Unite chefs and farmers, and build a sustainable local food system, Clow said.

"We want to build a consistent, diverse supply of produce and add a value through specialty items and make it easier for chefs and restaurants to purchase locally," Clow said.

Although only three Beaufort County farms are participating in the program, Clow said she hopes to add more.

"We measure success by growers referring other growers to us," she said. "This is ultimately about reaching a new generation of farmers ... and about keeping farmers on their land."

West and his son Ashby, who helps tends the family's 40 acre plot near the Whale Branch River, will continue to do what they've always done: Grow food for people to eat.

"My family has been farming this land since 1884," Urbie West said. "Farming is in our blood. It's what we do, and we take tremendous pride in doing it."

Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/IPBG_Patrick.

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