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Produce in Palmetto State adapts to market changes to survive and thrive

One might call Martin Eubanks the dean of produce marketing in South Carolina. A 28-year veteran in the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, who today is head of its marketing efforts as assistant commissioner of Agriculture, Eubanks has seen the produce industry in the Palmetto State adapt to market changes and as a result it has not only survived, but thrived. Eubanks not only serves on many industry boards and associations that kept the industry nimble, he helped start several of them.

Food safety is an ongoing concern, a challenge to the produce industry that looms as big as heirloom tomatoes in August.

“Everything changed in packaging and shipping after 9/11,” Eubanks told The Produce News, referring to the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC. “We’ve got to keep ahead of the game on food safety.”

Eubanks noted that consumer education is key. “Produce is grown out in the open, so you should always wash it before eating it.” That said, care and handling in the supply chain are vital to food safety, he said, “and growers in our state have embraced this requirement.”

Another big change he has seen over the past three decades has been the advent of email, computers and social media. “Everything is instantaneous today — you can communicate in an eyeblink,” Eubanks observed.

His division oversees the Certified SC Grown program and others ranging from farmers’ markets to inspection services and market news. It has moved into social media with smartphone applications that locate where consumers can buy SC Grown produce or identify restaurants serving 25 percent or more South Carolina products in season.

Also, Eubanks noted, South Carolina farmers have diversified into niche markets. Cilantro, for example, is now grown to serve Hispanic customers. Broccoli, once an alien vegetable in the state, now is a successful crop with new varieties bred for South Carolina’s climate and soil. Asparagus, the state’s leading produce crop back in the day, is making a comeback.

From the 1980s to today, Eubanks remarked that the number of Stock Keeping Units, or SKUs, produced in South Carolina grew from about 60 to more than 500. Often, he noted, new units did not mean new crops, but new uses for existing products. For example, he said, a new SKU might signify a pre-cut Southern squash mix or a six-pack clamshell of peaches.

Bolstering the efforts to support small, niche growers, Eubanks said, are “food hubs” that handle logistics for small farmers and contract with supermarkets, restaurants and foodservice institutions. He hopes his department can help set up four to six hubs and many more “food nodes” to supply them for efficient logistics around the state. Eubanks cited GrowFood Carolina in the Charleston area as an example.

The veteran marketer listed immigration reform as a key issue for the produce industry in South Carolina, as it is nationwide. “We need to ensure a reliable, legal migrant workforce,” he said, observing that a colleague had said that the produce U.S. consumers eat will be harvested by migrant labor here or in some other country.

“Other countries do not have our food-safety protocols and regulatory oversight,” Eubanks pointed out. “I don’t want to see us farm production out to other countries. A country that can’t feed itself is at the mercy of others.”

With more than 700 commodities available at any given time, Eubanks believes the keys to long-term success for retailers and producers will be programs, service and value. Education at all levels of the store is vital.

“The managers know their products,” he said. “The trick is to have the clerks, when they get a question they can’t answer, say to the customer, ‘I don’t know the answer, but I will find that out for you.’“