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'We're leaving COVID in the dust': Midlands farmer hopeful for 2021

When restaurants closed, Nat Bradford shifted gears and started delivering elsewhere around the Southeast to keep business alive during the pandemic.

SUMTER COUNTY, S.C. — When the pandemic forced restaurants to close, farmers reliant on direct sales to these businesses were left to create a new plan in a matter of days.

In this story from our series Surviving COVID: Farm-to-Table, we learned how the virus taught one Sumter County farmer to expand his reach.

"We've been working the same soil for generations, it just becomes part of who you are."

On 10 and a half acres in Sumter County, okra and collard greens are the staple crops for Nat Bradford. He's the owner and operator of the Bradford Family Farm.

"The watermelon's what put us on the map for sure," said Bradford. "I'm the seventh generation to be saving seeds and passing them along."

Credit: WLTX

RELATED: 'Things are looking up': Lexington County land steward's CSA saved his business

Before the pandemic, the family business was based solely on direct sales to restaurants.

When March 2020 arrived, sales were practically brought to a halt.

"We went from 100% of our business down to about 20% overnight," said Bradford.

When restaurants shut down, Bradford quickly shifted gears to find other marketplaces.

Credit: Nat Bradford

RELATED: 'The biggest struggle was the unknown': How a Columbia restaurant owner kept business alive amid pandemic

"We started going to grocery stores, we added more routes, smaller sales but more restaurants scattered out over a broader cross section of the Southeast," he explained.

Bradford also opened the farm to drive-thru traffic, welcoming anyone who wanted to make purchases on-site.

It took most of the summer, he said, for sales to pick up again.

"COVID really showed us where we were weak on the farm with business. It was great to have restaurants to deliver to, but we didn't really have a connection with locals around here," said Bradford. "We put a sign up at the end of our dirt road advertising the okra. Then after a while, we started having a stream of folks that would come in and they loved our okra."

Credit: Bradford Watermelons Instagram

"Our strategy really shifted to: Where are the mouths and how do we get to them? We're going to take that into 2021 and build on it," said Bradford.

News 19 watched from the ground and from the sky as the last of the collards were harvested.

Credit: WLTX

RELATED: Midlands farmer sows seeds of faith in 2021

Bradford has hope for a brighter future, while making room for next season's produce from his farm to your table.

"Every time you put a seed in the ground for a new crop, it's a chance to start a new slate," he said. "We're leaving COVID in the dust, we're hoping, and that our Spring crops are going to issue in a new season - hopefully with good crops, good weather and prosperity not just for our farm, but for all the farmers."

RELATED: 'It was a really scary time': Columbia restaurant on brink of closure fought to stay open