When Jade Cahoon’s son started talking, he asked for PopTarts.
The boy would see commercials for the pastries on television, then beg his mother to buy them at the grocery store.
Cahoon didn’t need to. She can make her own.
Having gone through culinary school and worked in the restaurant industry, she knows her away around an oven.
And after rekindling that passion for the kitchen with her children, Cahoon launched her own business, Rivertown Granola Company, this summer. She sells jars of the crunchy creations in flavors such as maple brown sugar, banana nut and pumpkin spice.
But as a stay-at-home mother of two, there isn’t much time to market her wares. On Saturdays she runs a stand at the Conway Farmers Market, which she said is her lone chance get out of the house and meet customers.
So she finds the news that Conway officials are considering a much larger farmers market for the downtown area encouraging.
“I would love that,” she said. “This is kind of the only day I get to come out, so to have a large-scale one where it’s super marketed, yeah, that would be awesome.”
Back on the radar
Conway Mayor Alys Lawson said talks about a larger market have been going on for a while, but they had tapered off as Conway leaders focused on other projects, particularly a business incubator program that recently was turned over to Coastal Carolina University.
All the projects stem from an economic development study that identified potential avenues for building business downtown.
“I don’t like to do studies that sit on a shelf,” Lawson said. “If you’re going to spend the money to find out what kind of economic development you should do, the next step is to go out and do it. We’re just kind of going down our list.”
Expanding the farmers market is now a top priority for city officials. Lawson said leaders still are trying to figure out the right fit for Conway, so she is studying other markets and is planning to tour some facilities.
City leaders would still need to determine the size, cost and scope of the project, but Lawson said they want to keep it in the downtown area. The current market sits just off Laurel Street.
“We’re in the initial stages,” Lawson said. “We know it’s a good fit for our community and we think it’s a potential economic development tool for us.”
Horry County’s farmers markets have flourished in recent years, in part because of the rising interest in locally grown food.
Survey results released last year by the firm A.T. Kearney showed that about 66 percent of those asked believe buying local food helps hometown economies. About 30 percent of those surveyed said they would change supermarkets if their store didn’t carry locally grown food.
State officials got in on the action in 2007, launching the “S.C. Grown” campaign to promote food grown in the Palmetto State.
In Horry, the local food movement has steadily expanded since 2008, when Conway leaders asked Clemson Extension Service to assist in setting up a market downtown.
The result was the Waccamaw Market Cooperative, a nonprofit managing four weekly markets. This summer, the cooperative added a market in Carolina Forest, meaning there is one every day of the week except Sunday.
Those don’t even include markets that aren’t participating in the cooperative, such as the Deville Street Farmers Market at The Market Common or Myrtle’s Market near Myrtle Beach City Hall.
The cooperative’s membership has expanded from 20 vendors in 2008 to nearly 50 today.
Blake Lanford, an agent with Clemson Extension Service, said the cooperative has worked well with limited resources to host small markets across the county. He’d like to see the next step in that evolution.
That doesn’t mean the smaller markets would close, he said, but the main one would have professional management and serve as a base for the other sites.
“I’ve always thought that Horry County could probably sustain a large scale centralized market,” he said. “We’re not talking about a state wholesale market or anything like that. I’m talking about just a larger market facility that was very centrally located.”
City officials and agriculture advocates have long talked about the possibility of building a food hub in Horry County. A hub would allow farmers to sell their produce to distributors or even directly to restaurants. An agribusiness study done for the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation has recommended a hub for Horry.
Lawson said such a project is still being considered.
“We think the retail piece will be very important because we already have such a successful market that the community enjoys,” Lawson said. “The wholesale piece that we do not have now can be grown, and then we do become a feeder for other area markets as well as other stores that are looking for local produce. We can be the central point where farmers are connected with the markets.”
Lanford said a food hub might work in Conway, but many communities are clamoring for one.
“I don’t see us competing for that type of project,” he said.
While the plans are still being developed, both Lawson and Lanford agree that Conway’s market should grow.
“We’re in a farming community,” the mayor said. “There’s so much local interest in farming.”
Lawson said she would like to see a market that includes a demonstration kitchen where chefs could teach cooking classes or farmers could show different ways to prepare their produce. She toured such a place in Greer and believes it would go over well in Conway.
Lanford also likes the idea, and said the expanded market could include many facets, including some entertainment. Timing, however, he said is critical. Earlier this year, the city of Greenwood announced plans for a multi-million dollar farmers market and other communities are quickly embracing the concept of large, centralized agricultural facilities.
“We’ve got 10 times the demand that they’ve got in Greenwood and they’ve seemed to figure out a way to pull this off,” he said. “We are going to get left in the dust if we don’t figure out a way to do something down here. These kinds of projects, they’re not economic saviors and they’re not huge employers, but they can be catalyst-type projects.”
For Cindy Worley Howell, a bigger, centralized market would be a business boon.
Her family runs a goat dairy farm in the Green Sea area, and she sells her products at the Conway and North Myrtle Beach farmers markets.
“These are the only two outlets we have to customers right now to sell our products,” she said. “We don’t do any farm sales because we are a working family farm. We need everybody working with the goats and the soap and the cheese. We don’t have anybody to man a store.”