Creating one central place: Farmers, chefs join forces to optimize local food market

Charleston Post and Courier
Paul Bowers
May 25, 2010

Squinting in the dark of an abandoned warehouse on Morrison Drive near the Ravenel Bridge, Cathy Forrester is talking about two groups of people: farmers and chefs.

Forrester is coordinator of sustainable agriculture programs at the Coastal Conservation League, a nonprofit group that recently bought the 10,000-square-foot building at 990 Morrison Drive for the purpose of opening a produce distribution center.

She said the building could help small local farmers, who often have trouble leaving their fields long enough to make restaurant deliveries. It initially will not be open to the public.

“When we started working on agriculture a few years ago, one of the chefs said it would be really good to have one central place,” Forrester said.

One of those chefs was Mike Lata, head chef at FIG on Meeting Street.

“My thoughts were, ‘Establish a downtown market, make it easy for people who are interested, let them go on their time,’ ” Lata said. “For chefs, a lot of times it’s hard to break routine.”

Lata’s restaurant is well-known for its farm-fresh dishes, with a menu that shifts daily to reflect what’s growing in Lowcountry fields. He developed his kitchen philosophy in mid-’90s Atlanta, where, as chef de cuisine at French restaurant Ciboulette, he started doing business directly with Georgia farmers.

“As soon as I scratched the surface, I found these people, or they found me,” Lata said.

Moving to Charleston in 1998, he met farmers like Maria Baldwin, who maintains 12 acres of organic crops in McClellanville.

Baldwin’s Our Local Foods is one of three area farms already participating in a web-based distribution effort at farm The site, run by agriculture nonprofit Lowcountry Local First, is essentially an online version of CCL’s storefront idea.

“On Monday, the farmer walks the field and determines what is seasonally appropriate for picking, and then it gets loaded into an online market that’s accessible to the chefs,” Baldwin said.

The site has a constantly shifting inventory, and LLF interns make deliveries within 24 hours of picking.

The two nonprofits, CCL and LLF, have worked together to plan the distribution center, tentatively called Central Market. Forrester said the plan is to have the center up and running by winter or spring, pending grants and board approval.

For now, the building is only a bare warehouse area and a messy, gutted office space. Baldwin said she is encouraged by her success with the online store but is concerned about filling the building.

“If we really are going to have a local or regional food system, then we have to scale up,” Baldwin said. “We need more farmers, and we need more farms participating, so I think this will definitely facilitate the scaling.”

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