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The parking lot of an Upstate manufacturing plant might not be the first place the average farmer thinks about when looking for new places to sell their produce.
But for Robert Jackson II, it’s a bit of a sweet spot.
Jackson, a second-generation grower with an upstart farm in Lyman, sets up each Friday during the growing season in a center courtyard at Duncan’s Draexlmaier. The company, and it’s more than 1,100 employees, are a key supplier for BMW’s South Carolina operations.
Every week Jackson loads a pickup truck bed full of goodness from his family farm. He hauls everything from tomatoes, squash and broccoli to peaches, apples, green beans and watermelons to Draexlmaier, where he conducts a brisk business.
The relationship with Draexlmaier has been an important market for Jackson over the past three years, along with his weekly sales at Spartanburg and Greenville farmers markets.
He said it almost happened by accident, when he was approached by a Draexlmaier employee who turned out to be a benefits manager for the international firm.
“She asked if I’d be willing to stop by the plant in Duncan and sell to their employees there,” Jackson said. “I’d never heard of them, but wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity, so I said sure.”
Draexlmaier had been working on internal employee wellness initiatives for years, according to company spokesman Ralph Schwarz, and had been hosting produce growers on the company’s Upstate campus since 2013 as a way to steer employees toward healthier eating habits.
Jackson said he showed up that first Friday, took one look at the sprawling plant and realized he’d need to bring an entire truck’s worth of produce from then on.
“It’s been a tremendous opportunity for me,” Jackson said. “We’re just 15 minutes from the roadside stand out at my dad’s place, but we’re able to bring that stuff here and sell to folks who’d probably never find us normally.”
Schwarz said many employees take advantage of the onsite stand to stock up on their weekend backyard barbecue eats, and he said the relationship has worked out to both Jackson’s and the company’s advantage.
A different kind of business model
Jackson’s direct-to-consumer approach isn’t the only way Upstate farmers are experimenting with their business models.
Jay Moore, a horticulture instructor at Spartanburg Community College, works with everything from multi-generational farmers to backyard hobby growers dreaming of one day turning pro.
He said traditional outlets like farmers markets and coops have a strong presence in the Upstate, and remain good options for farmers looking to sell their wares.
The problem? Farmers who sell direct to consumers have to master multiple skills — the tools, knowledge and tricks needed to coax tasty fruits and veggies from the earth, the ability to quickly and efficiently harvest them and then sell them to end users, like restaurants or consumers.
“We preach that if you’re doing this from a business standpoint, you need to know exactly where you’re going to sell something before you ever plant it,” Moore said. “But that can be easier said than done, sometimes.”
Smaller farmers also tend to focus on crop diversity, Moore said, growing many different varieties of fruits and vegetables as a way to ward off some of the disadvantages that come with large-scale mono-culture. A bad cold snap at the wrong time can devastate a peach harvest — Jackson said his father’s peach harvest suffered greatly in three successive years during the 1980s, putting a big strain on the family’s finances — and a 20-minute hailstorm can wipe out an entire crop of corn.
“The problem that comes with growing a lot of different stuff is that you’ve got to juggle planting and harvesting times, and that complicates getting that to market,” Moore said.
Moore said he sees part of the solution in community-supported agriculture, a movement that’s planted roots in Greenville, but remains largely untapped in Spartanburg. The basic idea is that farmers sell shares of their crop to the public — think of it as a kind of weekly subscription — in exchange for money up front.
It helps farmers by reducing the uncertainties in their cash flow, and consumers are certain of a hearty box of produce each week.
Some farms are the beneficiaries of the farm-to-table movement, Moore said, and deal direct with restaurants like The Kennedy in Spartanburg to arrange weekly pickups to supply the raw ingredients chefs need, but that market, too, remains largely untapped, he said.
He said there’s tremendous opportunity for the grower who can work out an arrangement with a high-volume restaurant, like a college or manufacturing firm’s cafeteria.
Food hubs to the rescue?
Sallie Hambright-Belue co-owns Cowpens’ Thicketty Mountain Farms with husband Brent Belue. She said each grew up in farming families before moving to the work-a-day world.
They realized they wanted to return to working the land and made that move on a part-time basis in 2012.
Hambright-Belue said Thicketty Mountain has spent its early years experimenting with methods and markets, and found some success early on selling to restaurants, which now include The Kennedy.
But the sheer volume of time and effort the logistical end of the business required left the pair looking for another solution. She said at least part of the fix may come in the form of South Carolina’s food hub network.
It’s an easy idea to illustrate: Farmers focus on growing and harvesting their crop while a distribution hub handles things like marketing and order fulfillment for places like restaurants.
Hambright-Belue said the Upstate’s hub is the Swamp Rabbit Cafe and Grocery in Greenville.
Selling to the hub means Thicketty Mountain sacrifices some revenue versus selling direct to consumers, but it eases Hambright-Belue’s headaches and frees up extra time that can be used to plant and harvest additional crops. She said she’s attempting to transition all her current restaurant customers to buy from the Swamp Rabbit.
“It’s been somewhat slow going because it’s just getting off the ground, but we can already see ways this might end up helping everybody,” Hambright-Belue said. “Now, we need to get consumers and restaurants on board.”