Ruta Smith

Like the Charleston restaurants they supply, farmers and purveyors are feeling the same pinch from coronavirus-related closures. From produce at GrowFood Carolina to the fresh catch at Tarvin Seafood, the people who supply local kitchens are trying to find a way forward for their businesses and the communities they sustain.

According to Cindy Tarvin, the coronavirus actually hasn’t changed day-to-day work on the water yet, since the shrimping season has not begun. “In the off-season, our supply is mostly frozen shrimps that we sell to restaurants and retail stores,” explains Tarvin. “Usually, 70 percent of our business is to restaurants, but right now we aren’t even doing 10 percent of what we were pre-coronavirus.” Tarvin notes that although the majority of their restaurant clients are closed or scaling back, they are still supplying to Edmund’s Oast, The Grocery, Le Farfalle, Chubby Fish, Babas on Cannon, The Wreck, and Little Miss Ha. In addition, Tarvin is selling to a number of Lowcountry grocery stores, a part of the business that has picked up as customers look to purchase in bulk and store items in the freezer.

GrowFood GM Anthony Mirisciotta has also seen an uptick in GrowFood Carolina retail sales in the past couple of weeks. “We have increased our presence in retail as they have experienced growth in demand,” explains Mirisciotta, who sells to small scale grocery stores like the Veggie Bin on Spring Street in addition to Harris Teeter and Whole Foods locations.

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Mirisciotta, a champion of small-scale agriculture, has been impressed with consumer response to the pandemic. “More people are showing up to the farms and contacting them directly. It’s been a natural progression, and our farmers have been adapting. They understand that we need a little less product at GrowFood right now, so their ability to do direct-to-consumer sales has enabled us to avoid having excess product.”

At a time when many have reason to feel down, Mirisciotta feels proud. “It’s really great to hear that from the farmers because it shows the value of our local producers. Everything we have worked for at GrowFood is about this local Charleston food scene, and it seems like it took a catastrophic event to bring all this to light,” Mirisciotta concludes. The Pittsburgh native has even been impressed by small efforts of businesses like Charles Towne Fermentory, which is offering a dozen local eggs with their six packs of craft beer.

Still, GrowFood Carolina faces similar challenges as other storefronts in Charleston. “We are staying open but in a more limited capacity,” concedes Mirisciotta. “We have most of our staff working from home, but we do want to stay open for the restaurants who are still offering take out and delivery. We have limited pick-up hours which have decreased but are consistent.”

But for Tarvin, COVID-19 will affect the start of shrimp season. The state Department of Natural Resources usually tests local waters around this time each year, a process that is currently delayed because of the coronavirus. Tarvin says she hasn’t heard any updates from DNR but predicts that South Carolina’s season will open soon after Georgia’s in mid-April. “DNR is obligated to advise shrimpers five days before opening, but typically there is a lot of talk before that opening,” shares Tarvin. “I would guess that our shrimping season will start at the end of April or the beginning of May. If we are still in this lockdown, it would present some additional challenges.” Those challenges include making time for the extra work associated with implementing their new sanitation practices on the boats and shrimping in waters with less DNR intel than they normally receive.

For now, both Tarvin and Mirisciotta have increased their sanitation practices to help mitigate the risks of staying in operation. “We have sanitation tools everywhere for customers and employees, and we spray everything down multiple times per day,” says Tarvin. Mirisciotta is taking similar precautions at GrowFood. “We created new and COVID-specific protocols to follow during these times to ensure the safety of our staff, farmers, and communities.”

In a time filled with uncertainty, both Tarvin and Mirisciotta remain optimistic. Tarvin is forging ahead with plans to improve the Wando Dock while still keeping all of her employees on the full-time payroll. Likewise, Mirisciotta is steadfast in his faith in GrowFood’s mission. “The coronavirus has highlighted the power of local food and having farms in our community. This scare is showing the significance of having a farm down the road. It’s a really important time for all of us to get out and support local producers, businesses, and restaurants.”