A TASTY COMBO OF COMMUNITY AND COMMERCE
SUSAN BRANT NEVER IMAGINED BEING A FARMER. “It was something my husband always wanted to do,” said Brant, a retired nurse. “I didn’t like to get my hands dirty. I do now,” she said, laughing from her perch atop a cooler at the Port Royal Farmers Market while overseeing her grandchildren tending to customers.
When her husband, Don, proposed they start Brant Family Farm in Varnville three years ago after he retired as a chemical engineer at Exxon, Susan said, “‘I want it to be all natural.’ He said, ‘Are you sure? It‘s a lot of work.’ I think I’m doing it to atone for those years working for Exxon.”
After selling just online and inefficiently delivering tiny orders, they realized farmers markets were a better way to go. They’ve built a following at area markets and supply “locavore” restaurants Red Fish on Hilton Head, Saltus in Beaufort, and Sweetwater on Dataw Island with their chemical-free produce.
The Brants aren’t alone in creating either supplemental or full-time income from farmers markets, traveling around to the nearly dozen in Beaufort County alone, from Sea Pines to Beaufort.
The number of community farmers markets has quadrupled in the U.S. the past 10 years, with 120 in South Carolina alone. Their success is spurred by people’s rising interest in eating locally grown food, according to the S.C. Department of Agriculture, which offers an array of programs to help markets and farmers thrive.
CONTROLLING THE CHARACTERS
Kim Viljac, manager of the Farmers Market at Bluffton, said each farmers market has its own “vibe.”
The atmosphere Viljac is striving for is a stressfree, community-centered market where people listen to music and wander among booths. The cluster of white tents has evolved into a weekly tourist destination and gathering spot.
With vendor slots in high demand, she still keeps space available for seasonal sellers such as peach farmers and melon growers, so there’s room for them when their harvest comes in. “It’s a very delicate balance,” she said. “I’m very protective of my vendors.” For the good of all, she sometimes has to “fire” a vendor if they’re “less than truthful” about where their food is from. At the Bluffton market, produce must come from the Carolinas or Georgia.
She also has to oust vendors who don’t get along with others.
“Some vendors, after warnings, they still want to argue with other vendors or even customers. Some people just don’t fit in here. It’s a hard, long day and we try to get along.
“There are markets for everyone. There are some where it’s strictly coming in, getting what you want, and leaving. Ours is different. People want to talk with you about products and visit.”
Kit Bruce, manager of the area’s other large market in Port Royal, walks that fine line, too, between supporting local farmers and creating a pleasant atmosphere. Port Royal lets the market use town property along busy Ribaut Road, a highly visible location that draws hundreds of shoppers and dozens of vendors every Saturday morning.
Bruce said it took a while to find the right vendors who understood the ambiance of the Port Royal market and adhered to the rule that they grow at least half of what they sell. Some “stretch it a bit,” relying more on food purchased at a wholesale market in Columbia and reselling it, she said.
“Who knows where that food comes from? We get our nutrition from local food grown in local soil. It’s amazing that people better educated than me don’t get that,” Bruce said. She encourages vendors to post signs indicating exactly where the food was grown.
“We’re pretty much at capacity,” Bruce said. “I could add vendors all day long, but that doesn’t help the vendors who have been here since the beginning.”
Viljac sees the interest in farmers markets only increasing.
Recently, the Bluffton market’s website drew inquiries from reality show producers. One is mulling a “Food Court” show and another is considering a show about black men with interesting and passionate twists for their unique businesses.
“Both producers came across our website and thought we had a pretty interesting group of people,” Viljac said. “They were contacting the vendors directly, but I don’t believe anything actually came of either as of yet.”
She thinks farmers markets would make a great reality show. “It’s very visual. We would make a hilarious reality show!”