Putting growers and end-users closer together has been the cumulative effect of a multi-phase marketing program initiated by the South Carolina Department of Agriculture.

Now in its third year, the program has grown from a handful of fruit and vegetable growers to linking more than 550 farmers and livestock producers to retail outlets and restaurants in every corner of the state.

The first step was the Certified South Carolina Program initiated in May of 2007. Each year the marketing team, under the watchful and helpful eye of Commissioner Hugh Weathers, has added more steps. Each step has brought more and more South Carolina growers into the program.

Fresh on the Menu was the second phase of the program. This program brought growers more directly in contact with restaurant owners and managers, even key chefs in major tourist areas, like Charleston.

The recently launched Palmettovore Program has built on the original two programs, and now includes virtually everyone associated with the food industry in South Carolina. Palmettovore is a take-off on the term Localvore, which is someone who eats food grown or processed from within 100 miles of their own location. A Palmettovore is someone who eats food only from South Carolina — the Palmetto State.

Among the three year program’s first and most successful farmers is the O’Neal family in Fairfax, S.C. Their two-county, 2,000 acre operation has grown exponentially with the South Carolina Certified Program.

Family patriarch Bradley O’Neal played football at Clemson University under legendary coach Frank Howard. Toughness and discipline he learned from college football, he says have been valuable assets in his business career. O’Neal and his family operate Coosaw Farms. His children, son Brad and daughter Angela, he says have adapted new programs like Certified South Carolina Grown and have been valuable assets in building the farm enterprise.

Coosaw Farms’ main crops are watermelons, blueberries and oriental vegetables. The O’Neals began growing oriental vegetables after a couple in New York City, who was buying their seedless watermelons, approached them about growing oriental vegetables. Now they produce a spring and autumn oriental vegetable crop.

“It’s been really great for our blueberries,” Angela O’Neal Chappell says. The Certified South Carolina Grown logo was first used on their blueberry packages and has been warmly received by retailers. “I cannot say enough good stuff about the logo and what it means,” Chappell says.

Since joining Certified South Carolina Grown, Coosaw Farms has incorporated the logo on their Web site, letterhead and watermelon bins to ensure customers they are buying fresh produce grown right in South Carolina.

To be a Certified South Carolina grower requires an application with the Department of Agriculture. Growers must list crops they grow or specialty food products they market. Specialty food producers must be in compliance the Department’s Consumer Services Division. Depending on the product, the marketing team refers the application to the appropriate office within the Department of Agriculture.

Once growers are certified, they are licensed to use the South Carolina Certified logo. They can attach logos provided by the Department of Agriculture to their products or they can create their own logo — within guidelines set up by the program.

The program is open to all farmers, but few row crop farmers have taken advantage of it. However, as global marketing becomes a more critical factor in on-farm planning, setting quality values aside from one state or region to another will likely increase in value in future years.

The driving force behind the Certified South Carolina Certified is Ansley Rast. She grew up on a cotton farm run by her grandfather and her father, Monte Rast. When Monte went out on his own and diversified his farming operation, Ansley got an early education on the value of creative marketing in agriculture.

“I remember my father used to grow strawberries. He would load the truck up with strawberries and say, “Ansley go sell these strawberries — I don’t care who you sell them to — I don’t want them back.” She didn’t know it at the time, but she was getting valuable on-the-job training for her current career.

After completing a degree in advertising and marketing from the University of South Carolina, Ansley was tapped by then new Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers to head a new marketing program that has grown to become Certified South Carolina Grown.

Rast says the number of growers participating in the program has more than doubled every year. “Our growers run the gamut from backyard gardeners who sell a little produce to large acreage farmers who ship South Carolina grown products all over the country,” Rast says. The only cost to growers is the actual cost of labels that are applied to products — the program is essentially free to any farmer who applies and meets the production guidelines for their particular crop or food item, she explains.

“We have gotten a lot of interest lately from beef producers. These are primarily small, grass-fed producers who have a few head of cattle. We have members who raise chickens and hogs. The meat producers see a big benefit from the program and have been among the most energetic users of our marketing tools,” Rast notes.

The second step in Certified South Carolina was the Fresh on the Menu program, which started as a pilot program in the Charleston area. The South Carolina marketing team worked with a group called Low Country Local First. They paired chefs at the Charleston Food and Wine Festival with growers who produced South Carolina products.

“Restaurants in South Carolina were eager to use state-grown products, but they couldn’t find the farmers who grew these products. Farmers and chefs have a totally different schedule — both are seeking the same thing to provide high quality food, but there was no mechanism to get them together,” Rast says.

Through Low Country Local First, Rast’s marketing team produced a Farm Fresh Food Guide. The guide includes a list of farmers in the Low Country of South Carolina and what they produce on one side. On the other side is a list of Low Country restaurants — what they are looking for, what is the best time to call, how many customers they serve. North Carolina has a similar program, from which Rast says they adapted the South Carolina program.

In the first year over 60 South Carolina restaurants, primarily in the Charleston area, signed on for the Carolina Certified — Fresh on the Menu — program. Currently, over 200 restaurants are signed on to the program.

South Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers says Fresh on the Menu Program was highly successful in bringing farmers and restaurants closer together. “At the Charleston Food and Wine Festival Fresh on the Menu quick-thinking teams of two were given a wide selection of ingredients from which to choose — oysters, shrimp, quail, red snapper, ribs, bacon, pork loin, ham hock, fresh produce, rice and grits. That in itself shows the diversity of South Carolina's bounty of products. The chefs captured the Low country's flavor and Southern style by creating culinary works of art. A distinguished panel of judges who critiqued the dishes based on taste, flavor, presentation, texture, and originality,” Weathers explains.

Similar high profile results are being garnered by the recently-released Palmettovore program — the third phase of Carolina Certified. A point of the new program is to demonstrate to people within South Carolina how much fresh, state-grown or processed food is available compared to how much is actually consumed.

The Certified South Carolina program is much more than glitz and glitter. These programs are tied in directly to a state-wide farmers market program and works closely with trade associations for the various commodities grown in the state. The program is as low-tech as bumper stickers and stick-on logos and as high-tech streaming video on Facebook and Twitter.

Though the new marketing program has been widely accepted by South Carolina’s agriculture industry, others in the state have been less than enthusiastic, especially over the latest campaign — Palmettovore.

Kevin Dietrick, senior policy analyst with the South Carolina Policy Council says, “The first image on the Web page for the Department of Agriculture’s Palmettovore advertising campaign is a hen laying a big fat egg. That’s entirely appropriate because Palmettovore, unveiled last month with great fanfare, is one of the sillier promotional campaigns in recent memory. Worse than that, it’s an outright waste of South Carolina tax dollars — nearly $54,000 for the current fiscal year.

In less than two years, the department has paid out more than $2.5 million to Columbia advertising agency Chernoff Newman, which created the Palmettovore campaign and also handles the Certified South Carolina Grown effort. And given that Palmettovore didn’t launch until mid-May, it’s likely the agriculture department’s tab with Chernoff Newman will be much higher,” Dietrick concludes.

Despite the in-state controversy, the Certified South Carolina Grown program continues to grow, continues to generate interest among both farmers and consumers and provides some unique marketing tools for South Carolina farmers.

e-mail: rroberson@farmpress.com