Gwen Fowler



New state farmers market opens with fall plant and flower show

Posted 10/8/2010 7:05:00 PM

Pumpkins, mums, gourds, apples, sugar cane, even some late-season watermelons, decorated the new S.C. State Farmers Market this week as it was prepared for its debut at the Midlands Fall Plant and Flower Festival Saturday and Sunday.

Market Manager David Tompkins hopes big crowds turn out this weekend to see what the new facility is like. He’s convinced people will like what they see.

Krystal Grant of Simpsonville did. She stopped by the market Thursday morning with her father and young son. The back of her minivan was filled with pansies, pumpkins, apples and other vegetables, showing off the variety the market has to offer.

Grant said she liked the setup of the new market and how nice the facilities are. "It's really wide open and spacious," she said.

The new market, on U.S 321 at the intersection of Interstates 26 and 77 near Cayce, is more than twice the size of the old market on Bluff Road in Columbia, near the University of South Carolina football stadium and the state fairgrounds.

This weekend, visitors to the new market will see vendors selling all types of potted plants, trees, lighting for outdoor displays, outdoor furniture and more. A group of Clemson University master gardeners will be there to answer questions.

And for the next few months, visitors will see that construction is continuing on part of the 174-acre site.

For now, local farmers and retailers are set up in two parallel, identical open-air sheds, Tompkins said, but that won’t be the case when the project is complete.

“In the spring, these sheds are going to be for farmers,” he said. “Under the new operation, to be in our sheds, they will have to be direct-from-the-farm sales.”

That separation of wholesalers, retailers and farmers will be a big improvement for customers and farmers, he said. Visitors will be separated from the traffic, often large trucks, visiting the wholesalers.

Wholesalers Senn Brothers Produce and V.B. Hook and Co. moved into the new market in August.

The S.C. Department of Agriculture’s laboratory and consumer services division moved in during the summer. That facility includes five state-of-the-art laboratories where the department tests feeds, seeds, foods, pesticides and petroleum products.

Construction will continue through the winter on buildings, called stables and porches, that will be the new home of retailers.

Along with produce, these resellers are likely to be selling arts and crafts, Tompkins said, and perhaps a coffee shop will open.

“You’ll be able to do more than to come by to buy a basket of peaches,” he said.

The new market will be very different from the old one or the two other S.C. state farmers markets, which are in Florence and Greenville. Eventually this one also will include a 150-seat exhibition kitchen for cooking demonstrations, a 400-seat outdoor amphitheater, an RV Park, a bakery, an ice cream shop, and a playground for children.

At the demonstration kitchen, visitors will be able to see local chefs “show them how to do up the collards right,” he said. Folks stopping by the market on a Saturday to stock up on fresh fruits and vegetables might also be able to catch a cooking demonstration.

The amphitheater site is being prepared for construction and should be ready by spring, Tompkins said. Bands and other entertainment and events such as flower shows can be held there, and it also will be available for people to lease.

“Today a lot of people just pulled up to ask what’s going on,” Stephen Hudson, public relations specialist at the S.C. Department of Agriculture, said Thursday. “Many just wanted to check out the new market.”

A number of retailers are still operating at the old market, but they have to move out by Oct. 29. That property has been sold to USC, and the retailers have had to pay increased rent since mid-August. They’ve also had to shut down on Saturdays when USC has home football games.

The new market is the only one of the three state markets that was built and will be operated under a public-private partnership.

That will be a big change for Tompkins, who has been with the state agriculture department for 22 years, serving as market manager for the past 10.

“It takes some negotiation and coming to terms with a lot of things,” he said. But “we’ve been working together.”