Farmers markets have been cropping up recently like the produce their vendors sell.
Locals can stop by a farmers market just about any day of the week in Beaufort County. As of this month, nine farmers markets are in operation this summer throughout the county or nearby. Three have started within the year -- the Hilton Head Island Farmers Market in April, the Pick Pocket Plantation Farmers Market in June, and the Hardeeville Farmers Market earlier this month.
The trend expands beyond the Lowcountry, as well. As of last year, the number of farmers markets nationwide stood at about 6,100, nearly a 16 percent increase from the year before, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The department started keeping track of farmers markets in 1994, back when the number totaled about 1,700.
The growth has come quickly locally, begging the question: How much is too much? Are these farmers markets here to stay?
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A national push to eat local food helped grow the demand for the fresh produce, fruit and meat the markets sell. The term "locavore" was coined to describe someone who buys foods in their regional backyard to help the local economy and get a fresher, potentially better-tasting product.
Piggybacking on the trend, the South Carolina Department of Agriculture started the Palmettovore movement,
including the "Certified SC" program that tags locally grown goods in grocery stores and gives stamps of approval to restaurants that use local ingredients.
The marketing push for local farmers has combined with the increased focus on eating well that's driving more people to seek out whole foods at farmers markets, organizers say.
"Healthy eating is in," said Pamela Ovens, an organizer of the Hilton Head market. "The island really wants it. We couldn't have come along at a better time."
MIXING IT UP
The key to survival, organizers say, is to find a niche for each market. The Habersham market, for example, holds First Friday events with live music and the involvement of nearby shops and restaurants.
The Pick Pocket Plantation market is held against the backdrop of a 15-acre antebellum property in Beaufort and incorporates crafters and artisans.
"We have a sophisticated population," said market organizer Kathy Lambert. "You need to produce variety. I love that all these markets have their own flavors."
The Buckwalter Place Traditional Farmers Market serves as a more bare-bones market. One a recent Tuesday, the market only had five tents, but a steady stream of people came from the Bluffton and Sun City Hilton Head area. By the end of the day, more than 200 visitors made their way through, many of those leaving work from the nearby CareCore office, organizer Larry Hughes said.
As the name implies, the market started with a focus on the more traditional farmers market goods, those from the "ground or sound," he said.
"We want to make sure we're working with all the farmers who need help," he said.
From a farmer's standpoint, the interest in eating local food has been a boon to business, as most travel a circuit of markets weekly to sell their goods. The Three Sisters Farm in Bluffton is a mainstay at three markets throughout the county. Recently, they noticed their revenue went down at the Bluffton market when the Hilton Head market opened. But since, they've been going to both and seen combined profits that are higher than when they just went to the Bluffton market, Mary Connor said.
"It's very encouraging to see people who understand the importance of eating locally," she said. "I do worry about splitting the base. There's only so many consumers who want to shop at farmers markets. ... There's only so many farmers to go around, too."
Farmers don't solely rely on markets for money, of course, but attending markets also works from a marketing perspective. They'll often find customers who will later buy individually or connect with a chef who might be interested in buying for a restaurant, for example. Don and Susan Brant of Brant Farms in Grays attend four or five markets a week not only for the potential profits, but for a chance to connect with the people who will be eating their food.
"The good thing is you get to see your customer eye to eye," Don Brant said. "They give us a lot of encouragement, which is very much appreciated."
The future of farmers markets in the area is uncertain at this point, said York Glover, a Clemson Extension agent who works with local farmers. The local trend of eating healthy has combined with the population growth in Beaufort county to create a perfect produce storm, so to say, that has potential to even get bigger, he said.
"At some point, you'll reach saturation," he said. "When will that happen? Has that already happened? I don't know. What I do know is that we're still a growing community and there's an appetite for these markets."