In 2011, the Richland Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) in Columbia, South Carolina entered a cooperative agreement with the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to promote voluntary conservation practices on certified- and transitioning-to-organic farmland through a program called the Organic Initiative. It quickly became apparent that, in order for more local farmers to take advantage of the Organic Initiative, more education, support, and local food system developments were needed to expand farmers’ access to local organic markets.
To facilitate these developments, the SWCD and NRCS partnered with a local non-profit organization, Sustainable Midlands, and together, the trio launched a working group called the Midlands Local Food Collaborative (MLFC, www.midlandslocalfood.org) in the fall of 2012. Today, five years later, the MLFC boasts fifteen active member agencies, organizations, and academic institutions whose common goal is to promote a vibrant and sustainable local food system in the eight-county region known as the South Carolina Midlands. These partner organizations meet regularly to coordinate regional food system efforts and have spearheaded a number of initiatives to increase the production and distribution of local and sustainably-grown foods.
The MLFC has hosted several events to support local, sustainable food production. One example is the 2014 “Future of Midlands Farms and Food Summit,” which was attended by more than 100 people who identified and prioritized local food system needs. (The top four priorities were increasing agriculture education, improving land access, expanding the Farm to School and Farm to Institution programs, and solving labor access issues.) Another example is the SC Farmer Resource Rodeo, held in 2016 and 2017 to help farmers and farm resource providers navigate the complex array of technical, financial, and educational resources provided by various federal, state, local, and non-profit resource providers. Both Resource Rodeos were attended by more than 100 people, including a number of new and beginning farmer program participants. In addition, the MLFC created an interactive, on-line local food finder and supported the creation of a printed local food guide (http://www.clemson.edu/extension/midlandslocalfood/find-local-food.html).
Perhaps of more importance than the individual events facilitated by the MLFC is the agency- and organization-level coordination that now occurs around food system developments in our region. Thanks to the regular MLFC meetings, staff members of local non-profit organizations, land trusts, and local, state, and federal government agencies now have a regular forum in which to interact, network, and share program updates. This creates a sense of community and encourages collaboration and communication.
Because of its good work, the Midlands Local Food Collaborative was recognized in the 2016 and 2017 “Good Food Org Guide” published by the James Beard Foundation and Food Tank to highlight groups who are working to create a better food system in the U.S.