It’s no secret that the super-powered (all organic, natural) fertilizer behind GrowFood Carolina’s success to date has pretty much been the one and only Sara Clow. She swooped in from San Francisco, took the helm of what, in 2011, was a new idea and empty warehouse, and used that big smile and big brain of hers to make the concept of a food hub both sexy and game changing. An initiative of the Coastal Conservation League, GrowFood was created to help rural small farmers hold on to their land, thereby strengthening the rural economy, improving access to local, healthy food, and squelching development. A food hub is basically a one-stop distribution point for farmers and one-stop shopping for chefs. Tinder for produce.
During Clow’s tenure, they’ve been remarkably successful in connecting small farmers with chefs and the local food scene. When she stepped down earlier this year, there was a collective gasp. Enter Anthony Mirisciotta, another dirt lover who comes via San Francisco and brings an impressive agri-background to his role as GrowFood’s new General Manager. We talked with him to find out more about his journey to S.C. and what’s in store behind the big mural on Morrison Drive.
Dish: Tell us a bit about your background, and what led you to GF.
Anthony Mirisciotta: I’ve been in the food, farming, and produce field for over 10 years now, a career that grew from curiosity, really. I’m originally from Pittsburgh, and as far back as I can remember I’ve wanted to understand more about where food comes from, how it’s grown, and so on. I was a journalism major in college, and briefly did some food and farm-related writing before going up to New England, where I started to connect to the food community more intentionally, first by working in the produce department at Whole Foods in Hartford, Conn. I loved meeting farmers back in the delivery bay, hearing their stories of what was going on in the field. It was energizing, and I started to feel I was finding my place.
From there I moved to Northern Vermont to be general manager of Deep Root Organic Co-Op, one of the oldest organic vegetable farm cooperatives with 25 member family-farms — really brilliant farmers. I did everything from production planning to logistics, loading and unloading trucks, and managing the quality of products. My office was smack in the middle of a Vermont farm, where the beauty and challenge of the different seasons, the land, was around me constantly. There I began to really understand what it takes to get that product out of the field and onto your shelves, on your plate. This experience solidified my passion for advocating for the small rural farmer. After increasing their annual sales to the highest level in their 20-year history, I moved on to the West Coast — what I considered the “big leagues” for farming and produce, the salad bowl of America. I spent four years at Earl’s Organic Produce, a large wholesaler in the San Francisco market. I started in sales, then moved to purchasing. I trained farmers on wholesale production and the tools they need to be successful. My big take away was how important it is to be creative in this business. To think outside the box about ways to grow and sell, to package things, to get people excited about food, because it really is exciting.
Dish: How so? What jazzes you about the fresh food world?
AM: I love the diversity of what grows well in different regions. Moving from Vermont to California and now to South Carolina is almost like learning the language of a new country. Each region has its own history, challenges, and rewards. There are so many things I love to really nerd out on. Especially seeds — the trove of heirloom seeds, different seed varieties, there’s so much cool stuff. I think the seed nerd movement will be the next wave of agri-awareness, the next wave of intelligent agriculture in this world of changing climates.
Dish: What excited you about this role, and what are the growth opportunities to build on the foundation that Clow leaves behind?
AM: First off, GrowFood is doing absolutely fantastic, we are continuing to grow and are outgrowing our space. Our relationships with local chefs and restaurant partners is phenomenal, far stronger than I would have expected looking from outside. Since launching in 2011, GrowFood has returned $6 million to our regional farmer partners — that’s a direct result of product they’ve brought and marketed through GrowFood — and $1.4 million of that is from 2018 alone, so we’re on track to exceed last year’s numbers through 2019. We’ve expanded our reach into Savannah, Columbia, and Greenville, and we’re doing our best to keep up with demand in a responsible way.
My job is to keep this momentum going. I’m drilling down on production planning — keeping track of agreements with our growers, evaluating our extensive list of commodities and when they are harvested, how much we can take on and sell/distribute at any given time. We have to massage that process, keep it dynamic. My experience over the last 10 years gives me a sense of national trends, so I’m trying to use that collective experience to approach this market with a fresh set of eyes. For example, if we have 15 growers doing Shishito peppers, why not encourage someone to grow a different pepper? The opportunity is finding the holes and filling them with what you know or think will work, then finding farmers willing to take a chance. I think we have lots of opportunity here to expand and push the shoulders of the growing season, especially winter, when we can grow more fun and diverse stuff.
Dish: How is the Charleston region doing in the greater landscape of local grower distribution? Are we ahead of the curve? On par? Lagging?
AM: I think we’re on track if not ahead of the curve when it comes to local food support and distribution. I can’t say enough about our chefs and restaurant/retail partners who’ve supported GFC from day one. Honestly, because I am a newcomer and seeing it with new eyes, I was pretty surprised at how good of a job is being done here. The story is being told well on menus and in restaurants. We should be proud of all that’s been done thus far and the heritage we have here. I think we are ahead of the curve in launching the broader S.C. Food Hub network. It’s rare to have a statewide food hub system, with GrowFood as the foundation now partnering with Swamp Rabbit Grocery as a Greenville food hub partner. This means we can do seasonal food planning together, and access food grown in their region when the season has ended in ours, like heirloom tomatoes. We can source them through Swamp Rabbit and Greenville-area growers after it gets too hot to grow them in Charleston. This keeps South Carolina food production local and extends the reach of local food systems. You don’t see that happening nationally.
Dish: Any challenges you didn’t anticipate?
AM: I have to thank Sara and the entire GrowFood team for handing off a successful opportunity to me. There are no real problems or fires I had to jump on, it’s been a smooth landing for me. My challenges personally are trying to manage my time and figure out how to be the person in the warehouse and in the community speaking as well as going out to meet farmers and customers. I want to be everywhere at once! I can only hope and wish to fill Sara’s big shoes, for me it is an internal driving force and huge motivation knowing how much she and the entire community has put into this and accomplished. I’m excited to continue elevating it.
The Coastal Conservation League of which GrowFood is a part is celebrating its 30th anniversary this fall, and they’ve had a successful anniversary fundraising campaign, which means we can focus more on operations, but I look forward to expanding our fundraising. I’m excited to get into that part of it, to be the voice of the farmer and get people excited and more involved in our mission. Our main purpose is keeping food dollars local and keeping farmers in the field doing what they love.
Dish: What’s ahead for the relationship between growers and chefs/buyers?
AM: We still have chefs who walk in a few times a week saying, “Hey I’m doing an event this weekend, what should I be cooking? What do you want to show me?” We love that opportunity to really connect people with food, to have that direct dialogue. We’ll hand select a box of peppers or whatever just came in, let them taste it. Those kind of transparent, honest relationships and communications keep this entire movement moving forward. It’s about our ability to steer them toward a box of figs that are more mature and softer — ‘So hey, if you’re using them today, then these are the ones to go for.’ Those connections are what it’s all about. We had three different growers each doing blackberries, but with different delicious characteristics depending on where they were grown. One box was from Wadmalaw, and a chef came in and connected with that batch because he used to go there as a kid. That’s the beauty of food — the ability to turn that berry into a story, a memory or experience. That’s what we’re trying to do.
Dish: What’s your favorite part of the job?
AM: I love that this business in general is super-fast paced. Every day when we open that door there will be a surprise. Maybe something that comes in tasting outstanding, or maybe a farmer drops by with an incredible story, you never know what’s coming. Every single day is a new day. I absolutely love running out when a truck pulls up and seeing what they’re bringing in. Maybe it’s peaches — we’ll cut one immediately and give everyone a taste so they know what’s going on. One of our sales team grabs a bite, then picks up the phone and calls a chef and says, “Hey, you absolutely have to have these.”