When farmers in the Midlands have a question about food safety, regulations, transportation logistics, or even how to expand or continue farming, a bigger question often comes up: Who has those answers? With several different types of organizations from government to local nonprofits, it isn’t always easy for growers to get the right information from the right resource. Since 2011, the Midlands Local Food Collaborative has been helping to fill that void in a unified effort.
Three years ago, the Richland County Water Conservation District entered into a cooperative with the National Resources Conservation Service to promote local, sustainable farming in the Midlands region.
“Once we started working on that project, we decided we needed to be more informed about what our partner agencies were doing,” says Chanda Cooper, the education program coordinator for the Richland County Conservation Department. “Our joint efforts are on improving local food systems in the Midlands.”
In finding that many organizations already had similar goals, the Midlands Food Collaborative was formed out of a working group of agency folks from the USDA, Richland County Soil and Water Conservation District, Sustainable Midlands, Clemson University CEICD and the state Department of Agriculture.
What: Future of Midlands Food and Farms Summit
Where: Phillips Market Center at the State Farmers Market, 3483 Charleston Highway, West Columbia
When: Monday, Aug. 4, 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
Price: Free. RSVP by calling 360-3358
Katie Welborn heads up the effort as a community organizer for a project out of the Center for Research in Nutrition and Health Disparities at the University of South Carolina that is working to build the capacity of South Carolina communities to strengthen local food systems. She has been working with farmers and other stakeholders to identify barriers to growing and sourcing locally in the Midlands. Thus far the focus has been on the actual farmers and gleaning from their stories ways to make farming and selling food for direct human consumption more manageable, fostering economic development in a sector where consumer trends show there is room for growth.
Currently, South Carolinians consume $11 billion in produce, but only grow $1 billion of that food within the state, says Jack Shuler, president of the Palmetto Agribusiness Council, a trade organization for large agribusinesses. Recruiting more people to farming would keep more of those dollars local.
“It’s a great opportunity for South Carolina to eat local food; we know that it is fresher and healthier,” he says. “Maybe generations can change what and how we eat in our state.”
For example, a 2013 study called Making Small Farms into Big Business lays out opportunities for more farmers to make a living growing food for human consumption in South Carolina as opposed to focusing on growing commodity crops such as tobacco, corn, soy and cotton.
In addition to recruiting farmers, the Midlands Local Food Collaborative wants to assess whether there are or will be enough farmers who grow food for human consumption and would like to utilize the services of a food hub in the Midlands. A food hub is an entity that acts as a middleman between farmers and commercial food sellers and provides increased infrastructure, logistical, and marketing support for farmers, connecting them with local stores, restaurants or other commercial buyers, freeing up the farmers to focus on their crops. Food hubs can also carry greater liability in terms of food safety than individual farms may be able to. Hubs also can involve commercial kitchen facilities, freezers and other processing equipment.
Currently, GrowFood Carolina in Charleston is the only functioning food hub in South Carolina. It operates as a nonprofit through a grant from the Coastal Conservation League but hopes to be self-sustaining in a few years.
“There are a lot of people interested in the concept, and we want to work together and move this effort along faster,” Shuler says. “It won’t happen in a year or even five unless someone steps up and says they have people and money [to start one in their region].”
This week, the Collaborative is hosting The Future of Midlands Food and Farms Summit for growers, buyers and anyone interested in the Midlands to learn, network and share their opinions on the future of farming in South Carolina.
“The most important thing,” Welborn says, “is to escalate the voice of the farmer when it comes to changes that need to be made in our food system and policies that affect agriculture and access to fresh foods in the Midlands.”
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