Sandlapper Society

Farm Fresh

by Jan Collins

Midlands residents and visitors who travel on I-77 or I-26 have probably noticed signage inviting them to enjoy some “Bountiful Fun” at the new South Carolina State Farmers MarketSM. “We’re 15 minutes from anywhere in the Midlands area,” says Martin Eubanks, Assistant Commissioner of Agricultural Services, South Carolina Department of Agriculture (SCDA).

The new State Farmers Market is located in West Columbia on Highway 321 (Charleston Highway) just 1.5 miles off both interstates. Formerly located on Bluff Road in Columbia, the market in its new location is much more than just a venue for selling and buying garden-fresh produce from local farms. It is, says Eubanks, “a true agricultural campus in the center of the state.”

The 175-acre market complex is a public/private partnership developed by SCDA and Columbia-based Stern Market Properties. That partnership has been crucial in getting the complex built in a timely manner, developers and agriculture officials agree. “It lowered our investment costs significantly, and that’s really a big part of making the move possible,” explains David Tompkins, Director of State Farmers Markets. (The other state farmers markets are located in Florence and Greenville.) 

The new Columbia-area market has convenient on-site parking, and customers come from Lexington, Richland, Calhoun counties and other nearby areas. Featuring wide sidewalks, attractive landscaping and Lowcountry design, the market is a family-friendly venue where parents and kids can browse for fresh produce, flowers, newly-baked breads, jams and crafts; watch chefs perform free culinary demonstrations in a state-of-the-art kitchen featuring healthy recipes and cooking styles; and enjoy delectable desserts and Southern-style, made-from-scratch meals featuring local, just-picked produce at Judy’s at the Market restaurant. There is also the No-Frills Grill, a food truck specializing in fresh, seasonal produce and such staples as hamburgers, hot dogs and quesadillas. 

The Midlands’ popular spring and fall Plant and Flower Festivals are now held at the new market. So are educational events for school groups, as well as barbecues and special summertime happenings such as Peach Day (when every visitor is presented with a free  juicy peach), BLT Day and Watermelon Day.

In winter, when local produce is more scarce, retail shoppers can peruse the Winter Market located in the Corbett Building, where various fruits and vegetables, meats, seafood, specialty foods and crafts are for sale in a covered, heated space. The area is air-conditioned in warm weather.

Wholesale vendors— there are more than 300 farmers registered to date— occupy their own section of the market, keeping truck traffic separate from pedestrian areas. “This is a one-of-a-kind venue where we showcase South Carolina products,” says Tompkins. “Our wholesalers buy products from our state’s farmers. This dynamic makes it a fairly unique market.” Customers can buy in large, wholesale quantities or in smaller, retail amounts.

At present, the Farmers Market displays the offerings of 18 major wholesale dealers. Those vendors “meet the high standards of the food industry,” adds Tompkins. “People can be assured that food safety standards are being adhered to and followed vigorously at the market,” he explains.

The new market is being built in phases, and Phase I is complete. Phase 1 includes farmers’ sheds and an administration building, a laboratory and consumer services facility, and a center with a large auditorium, executive board room and covered patio that can serve as a site for workshops, meetings and other public and private events for groups of 10 to 250. The center is equipped with the latest technology, including high-speed wireless Internet access and audiovisual equipment. It also features a full-service chef’s kitchen equipped with commercial appliances for catering and serving small luncheons or multi-course dinners. In addition, the kitchen serves as a culinary training center for the South Carolina State Department of Education’s food service personnel in safe food handling and preparation.

Phase II is expected to kick off this summer. “There is plenty of room for growth,” says Jason Stern of Stern Market Properties. Other wholesale and retail facilities are expected to be included in Phase II, such as a 400-seat amphitheater for demonstrations, education and entertainment; greenhouses; additional buildings for the sale of South Carolina produce and other premium Palmetto State products; and, perhaps, a children’s play area. “The additional phase or phases will be built according to demand,” says Bill Stern, president of Stern Stern & Associates, the commercial property development firm that is the parent company of Stern Market Properties.

SCDA encourages shoppers to join the market’s Harvest Society, which provides consumers with periodic text messages or emails informing them when various fruits and vegetables at the market are at their freshest. To sign up, go to scstatefarmersmarket.com and click on “Harvest Society.”

The Farmers Market is open daily. “We have this wonderful new facility that we want the people from the greater Columbia area to experience,” says Martin Eubanks.  “Come see us.” 

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This article sponsored by Severt’s, S.C. State Farmers Market, Senn Brothers Produce, Inc. and S.C. Department of Agriculture .