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Farmers diversifying as locally produced food becomes more popular

February 10, 2019

MARION, S.C. – Farmers face new challenges every year. Increasing production costs, catastrophic weather and unpredictable markets make the business of growing food a difficult proposition.

To stabilize and diversify, some area farmers are adding fruit and vegetable production to their operations.

Demand for local produce has grown over the past 10 years, with a dramatic increase in the past five years, said Jonathan Honeycutt, sales manager of Honeycutt Produce. The business is a fourth-generation distributor of fresh fruit, vegetable and dairy products. Serving parts of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, Honeycutt Produce has seen an increase in demand for local produce across their coverage area, he said.

“Years ago, almost all produce, meat and cheese in restaurants and grocery stores was local,” Honeycutt said. “About 20 years ago, large distributors took over the market, and the food started getting sourced from farther away. Back then, retailers wanted the quickest and cheapest they could get.”

With an increase in customer demand for local produce, chain restaurants that did not care where produce came from are now asking for local sources, he said.

“It’s exciting to see a shift back to local food,” Honeycutt said. “We’re proud to be getting local produce onto the consumer’s plate. Local produce also puts money back in the farmers’ pockets and the economy here. By increasing the number of growers, it’s possible to source local products at a competitive price.”

One farmer who is adding produce to his operation is Marion cattle producer Thomas Jones. Currently, Jones’ Spear T Cattle buys stocker calves, backgrounds them and sells them to feed lots. This spring, the farm also will grow vegetables and sell them to the Pee Dee Food Hub, a local wholesaler.

Although he plans to continue focusing on cattle, Jones said, he is adding another option to increase farm revenue.

“I won’t rule out any option that allows me to support my family with the farm, and this produce looks like a good fit,” Jones said.

Growing produce has a smaller land requirement than cattle, and he is considering vegetable crops with low input costs to avoid tying up large portions of his operating capital. Also, selling wholesale means he does not have to spend entire days marketing product to individual consumers, he added.

Row crop and cattle farmer Matt Stevens of Loris said he marketed his own small-scale produce directly to customers for several years. However, he is also looking to diversify the operation by growing produce on a larger scale.

“Recent tariffs have led to possible cuts in our tobacco contracts,” Stevens said. “We’re trying to do a variety of things to diversify. That way if one thing doesn’t work, we have something to rely on. It’s hard to plan ahead, so the more diversification, the better.”

Although Stevens has some experience growing produce, large-scale production has many new challenges. Regulations for production practices and food safety as well as sourcing adequate labor are issues facing Stevens and all commercial produce growers.

“It’s going to be completely different than growing on a small scale, but it’s something we are going to learn because people love local produce,” Stevens said. “We are seeing it more in the grocery stores now, and people are definitely picking local stuff.

“A lot of people want to help local farmers, and they are glad to know where their food comes from. We’re happy to tell our farm’s story and share that with local people.”

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