During our Flavor Foray in Charleston, Sara Clow of Grow Food Carolina, visited with our group and spoke about her work with chefs and farmers. I had the opportunity to interview her and would like to share that here.
Friend of the Farmer
Charleston’s Sara Clow is on a mission to save one small farm at a time by providing a conduit for their produce to chefs and retailers.
By Beverly Stephen July 19, 2016
The idea of a farmer showing up at the back door of a restaurant with a bushel of heirloom tomatoes is romantic but not very efficient for either farmer or chef. A central location where farmers can bring their produce and chefs can purchase it, is much more practical. Such a place exists in Charleston, South Carolina. It’s called Grow Food Carolina and it’s headed by Sara Clow a dynamic career changer who has found her niche at the intersection of conservation and farming. It’s one of some 300 “food hubs” around the country that, as Clow says, “are making local easy.”
She’s the first to admit it’s not possible to supply everything a chef needs. “Every kitchen has to have a lemon in house every day,” she says. “We don’t grow lemons.” Neither do they deal in proteins. The focus is on fruits and vegetables. “We’re getting something fresh almost 12 months a year but we also a have freezer program. Now we’re in blueberry season and we’re freezing them.”
It’s not always easy getting to the locals. “When we started in 2011, I was the only full time employee and I had only convinced five farmers to join,” Clow recalls. It’s a testament to her entrepreneurial spirit and unflagging efforts that there are now eight employees working with 80 producers. Last year Grow Food did $1 million in sales. The non-profit retains a 20 percent operational fee. Revenues are reinvested into the program.
“We meet farmers, often reaching out at an event. A lot of farmers hear about us through word of mouth. After we make contact we make a farm visit,” she says. “We explain what we do and we get a feel for what they grow.”
Local small farmers deliver produce to the warehouse where it’s aggregated into coolers. Then the staff does sales and marketing and distribution. “We send an availability list twice a week to restaurants and once a week to institutions,“ Clow explains. “We send the list to hundreds of people but probably really only have 150 super active.” The customers number well regarded Charleston restaurants and super market giants like Harris Teeter and Whole Foods.
In Charleston, May and June are the busiest months. But the list of products is longer in the winter there than in colder climes. July and August are prime times for tomatoes, melons, butter beans, figs, okra, squash and peppers, and stone fruits.
“We opened a market for the farmers,” Clow believes. “We just expanded their wholesale market opportunities and they increased their acreage. I don’t have a poster child farm–no one specific story I can point to. Our goal is to create economically sustainable farms so they won’t be sold and developed.”
She explains that diversity and consistency of local products in quantity is a huge need for chefs. “Produce has to come in the volume they need. “We do crop production planning with farmers. “We’re a service organization for farmers, taking the demand information we have and filtering it through individual farmers to create a production plan and schedule.”
Clow did not grow up saying she wanted to run a food hub. She did get early exposure to the food business because her mother was a caterer. But she went off to college at Vanderbilt University in Nashville and majored in psychology and sociology. She wound up as a statistical analyst for a hedge fund in California. But the realm of finance didn’t suit her. So she took off for New Zealand joining the corps of Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) and worked on small farms for six months. Unbeknownst to her at the time, it was experience that would serve her well. She quickly learned how hard it is to dig potatoes by hand and how stinky the kelp compounds used to fertilize kiwis are. “They stink to high heaven!” she says.
Back in California, a friend of a friend got her a job with an organic grower that eventually led to a job with Pacific Organic Produce. This allowed her to gain experience working with growers around the world and with retailers such as Safeway and Whole Foods. So it was a natural fit when a former college roommate got in touch about the Grow Food job being created by the Coastal Conservation League. Here her love of food and agriculture and her experience with organics and marketing and her organizational skills all combine into a dream job. What’s more her hands-on farm experiences make her a believable ally. Though she’s petite, she has the look of someone you might meet on a hiking trail in California who would know how to take care of herself should she meet up with a bear.
“My goal is to create economically sustainable farms so they won’t be sold and developed,” she says. “I believe in slow and consistent change. My belief in organic has less to do with pesticides than the systemic destruction to soils and water. We are just not rebuilding our soils. So we constantly lose our top soil and that’s what feeds us.”
Clow is on the side of the small farmer in what is often a David and Goliath battle. “All of our laws were created for really big farms and I believe we need to focus on small and mid size local farms. They are the ones growing our food,” she explains. “The big ones are growing fiber fuel, not growing a vegetable.”
She steadfastly believes that the small farms need to be part of the conversation and she has a reputation for working tirelessly to put them in it. “Americans have an increased desire to know where their food comes from and it’s a trend that isn’t going away,” she says.
For herself, she says she would “like to spend more time with my hands in the dirt. I just bought a house so I have basil and flat leaf parsley.”