The Daily Gamecock

Local farmers use Soda City to connect Columbia community, grow business

<p>Keith Hearn harvests a rainbow mix that includes blue kale, red cabbage, purple radish and amaranth on March 29, 2024, at Daly Greens farm. Hearn is one of many local farmers who participate in the Soda City Market on Main Street and the Healthy Carolina Farmers Market at USC.</p>
Keith Hearn harvests a rainbow mix that includes blue kale, red cabbage, purple radish and amaranth on March 29, 2024, at Daly Greens farm. Hearn is one of many local farmers who participate in the Soda City Market on Main Street and the Healthy Carolina Farmers Market at USC.

Stanley Gruber, the owner of Gruber Farms in St. George, South Carolina, sets up his stand at 9 a.m. on Saturdays during the spring, summer and fall months for the Soda City Market in Columbia. 

There, he lines his table with a colorful assortment of produce before locals fill north Main Street.

For some local farmers, their produce businesses give them the opportunity to share their heritage and love for the community. With events such as the Healthy Carolina Farmers Market at USC and Soda City, Columbia has given farmers new ways to connect with their customers.

Mandy Churchwell, the owner of The Veggie Patch, a farm in Neeses, South Carolina, said her farm is more than just running a business.

Participating in the USC market allows her to provide students with affordable, healthy produce in place of unhealthy options that college can encourage.

“This market was for the students and faculty to have a chance for healthy fruits and vegetables instead of kids grabbing fast food all the time," Churchwell said. 

The Veggie Patch has always maintained strong family values, Churchwell said. Farming has been Churchwell's main form of business for years, even though it started as a food resource for the family. But she knew it could be something more, she said. 

“My family has always been in farming. My grandparents, parents before them, so it’s in our blood,” Churchwell said. “(It) started off just providing for our family. You would work and have a garden to supplement your food. And then about 16 years ago, I said, ‘Dad, let's make this into a business.’”

Selling at the Healthy Carolina Farmers Market has allowed her to build close relationships with students at USC and members of the USC community, Churchwell said. Now, she is returning to the market for her 16th year.

“I have met children here — students — that I’ve known them for many years, from freshman all the way to sophomores, seniors and graduates,” Churchwell said. “Every year, you get some that come back every week, and they love the market. And you build a little relationship with them.”

Customers of the Healthy Carolina Farmers Market have their own produce preferences, Churchwell said, so she maintains a variety of fruits and vegetables to meet the community's different needs. 

“You kind of have to balance. You have to have fruits and vegetables because most students, they like fruits or something they can grab and take to class,” Churchwell said. “But now, people like faculty, they want to take stuff to their houses and cook for the week. They're more toward the vegetable side.”

Gruber also has experience running a family farm. After his father died, Gruber retired from his job and took over the business, which was started in 1948.

Gruber grows more than 40 different crops, spanning from strawberries and watermelons to squashes and cucumbers. His farm sells seasonally at Soda City Market, which has given him the opportunity to connect with the community, he said.

The work is worth it for the loyal customers and connections that he's made along the way, he said.

“I just wanted to get something to put me closer to the people that are actually eating the produce that I grow,” Gruber said. 

Some farms such as Gruber's originally started as wholesale, meaning he sold his produce to buyers, grocery stores and other retailers. But Gruber said selling at the market and delivering to Community Supported Agriculture drop sites is the best way to bring him face-to-face with his customers. 

Keith Hearn, the owner and operator of Daly Greens farm, also has a stand at Soda City. Daly Greens is a small farm grown in his house, and it sells produce such as microgreens, hydroponic lettuce and mushrooms.


Microgreens are pictured on March 29, 2024, at Daly Greens. Microgreens are grown within 11 days using urban farming methods.

Hearn's produce is grown using a method called hydroponics, which is the practice of growing plants with a water-based solution instead of soil. The micro greens have 40 times the nutrition than the mature plant and are rich in an assortment of  A, C and B vitamins, Hearn said.  Similar to Churchwell, Hearn said his stand allows him to provide the community with access to healthy food options. 

“Making sure that there was healthy foods out there available for people, especially during the pandemic — that was when I really launched into making sure that people had really good, healthy, nutrient-dense food," Hearn said. 

Hearn grows and harvests his produce inside of his home. He has a setup of around 30 different trays for his microgreens, which are partnered with supplemental lighting above the plants to support their growth. The plants are then harvested with a simple cutting tool. 

Daly Greens produce is different from other stands at Soda City, but it gives Hearn the opportunity to educate people on the craft, he said. If anyone approaches him with questions, he makes an effort to keep customers coming back to his stand.

“Every time a person does walk up, I give them the same gracious knowledge about everything and try to make sure that they are now a customer,” Hearn said. 

Farming comes with its own set of difficulties, though. Hearn and Gruber said bringing produce to the table can be both pricey and tedious at times.

Gruber Farms is one of many farms across the country that belongs to Community Supported Agriculture, a system that connects local farms with restaurants, buyers and families within the community. The system works in conjunction with the farmers market and helps maintain the farms' cash flow by acting as an additional service outside of the wholesale and markets, Gruber said.

Community Supported Agriculture is a subscription-based service. People in the community can sign up online, choose their haul size and get produce delivered to them once a week, Gruber said. It allows people to buy products made available by farmers. 

“(The service) gives me operating money ahead of time because all of this stuff is expensive to grow, very expensive — and getting worse,” Gruber said. 

Gruber Farms used to mainly plant row crops, which are crops such as cotton or corn that can be planted in rows. The business has since shifted to working with produce that aligns more with Community Supported Agriculture, such as fruit or vegetables that would be used in local restaurants or sold at the markets. Gruber said it is pricey to maintain, but even small-scale farms such as Daly Greens have crops that require delicate maintenance. 

Hearn said the practice of microgreen upkeep is very tedious and thus leaves room for error. 

“It takes about 10 or 11 days to get the microgreens done. The mushrooms take about a couple of months,” Hearn said. “It’s a process. And you can mess up at any point because there are so many spores floating around in the air everywhere, that if they get into your bags then they get ruined.”

When customers go to the markets, they give farmers such as Gruber, Hearn and Churchwell the opportunity to see the impact of their hard work. They are also supporting a local business, helping the Columbia community thrive, Gruber said. 

“We’ve met a lot of good people over the years," Gruber said.  "And I’ve got a lot of loyal customers that come to me every year." 


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