Statewide Network to Strengthen South Carolina’s Food Economy
An established group of leaders across South Carolina’s food system are launching a new network, Growing Local SC, to cultivate a thriving, equitable, inclusive, resilient, and just food economy providing access to healthy food for all. The Growing Local SC local food network is one of 30 national projects awarded funding through the United States Department of Agriculture’s Regional Food System Partnership Grant program. With ten project partners, matching funds from the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, and project oversight from the South Carolina Food Policy Council, this highly collaborative and cross-sector network is a decade in the making.
Red Estatal Refuerza la Economía Alimentaria de Carolina del Sur
Todo el Estado – Un grupo de líderes establecidos a través del sistema alimentario de Carolina del Sur están lanzando una nueva red, Growing Local SC, para cultivar una economía alimentaria próspera, equitativa, inclusiva, resistente, y justa que le provee acceso a comida saludable a todos. La red local alimentaria Growing Local SC es uno de los 30 proyectos nacionales otorgados fondos a través del programa Regional Food System Partnership Grant del Departamento de Agricultura de Estados Unidos. Con diez organizaciones asociadas en el proyecto, fondos complementarios del Departamento de Agricultura de Carolina del Sur, y fiscalización por el South Carolina Food Policy Council, esta red intersectorial se ha desarrollado a través de una década.
Nothing stokes the fires of activism like becoming a parent. Passions eroded down to resignation can be quickly reinvigorated by a newly vested interest in the future. As the freshly minted parent of a daughter (a perfect, beautiful, tiny human named Wren) my own desire for a better world has been magnified tenfold. The stakes have been raised for the me to play my part in creating a brighter future for her while ensuring she grows up with strong female role model.
My convictions on the importance of our food system are shored up with the knowledge that my work in the field will be my legacy to my daughter. If she is to reap what we are sowing in my lifetime, I have an even greater incentive to invest in organizations, projects, and people who share my vision and values for the future.
This spring, thanks to Edible Charleston, I had the opportunity to connect with other local women in the food system to gain insight and perspective on the role they are playing in shaping the future of food.
FarmHER: How women are shaping the South Carolina food system
Close your eyes, and picture a farmer. There’s a strong chance that you imagined an aged and sun- worn grandfather figure.
But the face of farming is evolving. About one million women are currently running farm-based businesses, representing 30% of the total farmers in the country. And as farmers age out, the next generation is increasingly coming from outside of traditional circles. Individuals with non-agricultural- related degrees, people of color, indigenous people, veterans and members of the LGBTQ community are taking to the fields, and they’re bringing big ideas with them.
According to the National Young Farmers Coalition, these new farmers are more likely to be committed to environmental stewardship and to be advocates for equity and inclusion in the industry. This new wave of farmers is seeking more than a career–they’re after an opportunity to make a difference in their community and in their lives.
“You’re probably not going to get rich farming, but your quality of life is going to be high,” says Danielle Spies, co-owner of Sea Island Savory Herbs on Johns Island, a thriving plant nursery she runs with her business partner, Ella Cowen.
“I really appreciate when people come in and see that we are an all-women’s farm,” Spies says. “I like raising my daughter seeing strong women, and showing her we have the confidence to do it all on our own.”
The two friends purchased Sea Island Savory Herbs in 2013 with the major incentive of having the flexibility of raising their children while growing a strong business. Despite years of working at the farm prior to buying it, the first years were challenging.
“It felt like we had to prove ourselves. There’s pressure to know everything; to have more, grow bigger and look perfect,” Cowen says.
Spies’ advice to farmers getting started is to “surround yourself with people you enjoy working with, do what works best for you and your business, go with the flow and follow your heart.”
Six years later the two still love their jobs, enjoy working together, and have built a successful business that is leveling up the herb game in restaurants and markets throughout the area.
Changes in demographics aren’t the only aspect of agriculture evolving. Farmers in growing numbers are seeking opportunities in urban communities, from empty lots and rooftops to hydroponic tunnels and shipping containers. Traditionally a rural industry centered solely on crop yields, farming has expanded into cities, with urban farmers seeking opportunities for economic development, education and empowerment.
Germaine Jenkins of Fresh Future Farm is one such pioneer, cultivating more than healthy food in the Chicora-Cherokee neighborhood of North Charleston. For Jenkins, her farm not only provides access to healthy food but also teaches farming skills applicable to home gardens or agricultural businesses.
“I want to share so much about what I am learning; to get people’s hands in the dirt and show them it’s not as complicated as we are led to believe,” Jenkins says. Urban agriculture provides many farmers with lower barriers to entry, easier access for customers, opportunities for education and reduced transportation costs.
“Being in the middle of a residential neighborhood is golden because we are where the customers are,” Jenkins says. She also believes it is important for residents in the neighborhood to “see people who look like them growing their food.”
Jenkins is creating opportunities for black farmers to build connections and share best practices with the community by hosting the inaugural SC Black Farmers Conference on March 26. Bringing industry leaders such as Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm and author of Farming While Black, Erika Allen of the Urban Growers Collective as well as an impressive roster of local chefs and artisans, the event aims to provide a balance of best practices, networking and celebration. Community is at the heart of Jenkins’ farm, because from her perspective, you can work smarter and not harder by bringing in experts in to expand your operation. “You can’t do everything yourself,” Jenkins says.
With only 2% of the population in agriculture, the industry is in a position to open the doors to all individuals and production methods.
“Before we didn’t have enough markets and now we don’t have enough farmers,” says Helen Fields, co-owner of Joseph Fields Farm on Johns Island. “We need to continue to get more young people involved.” Fields and her husband, Joseph, have been running their farm as partnership since the early 2000s, with Helen handling the business side of the farm while Joseph focuses on production and sales.
“If it wasn’t for mentorship, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” Fields says. “A farmer needs to be affiliated with other farmers and farming organizations because that is your teaching tool. As things change, you need to be prepared.”
Having started one of the first USDA-Certified Organic Farms in South Carolina, the Fieldses have worked hard to keep up with industry trends and they are passionate about mentoring the next generation through farming apprenticeships.
For aspiring farmers, these apprenticeships provide invaluable hands-on experience.
“I was mentored by a very strong-willed woman,” says Jess Martin of her apprenticeship with Casey Price. Price owns Jeremiah Farm & Goat Dairy on Johns Island, where in addition to running a Grade A goat dairy, she also provides mentorship for new farmers interested in livestock.
After gaining invaluable hands-on experience working with animals, Martin became the farm manager at Wishbone Heritage Farms in St. George, where she oversees pasture-raised sheep, hogs, chickens, ducks and cattle. Martin credits Price as well as Celeste Albers of Green Grocer with providing her the support necessary to face the challenges of livestock farming.
“These are women who aren’t afraid to get in there and do the dirty work. I’m lucky to have connections with both of them. Those relationships help me stay confident,” Martin says. As a petite woman of 5 feet 3 inches working with 500-pound hogs, she is often questioned about her ability to handle animals. But she feels that being a woman in the livestock industry is an advantage.
“I think that we are more nurturing and take a more of an intuitive approach to things,” Martin says. “I feel like I can interact with animals without having to rely on physical strength.”
Martin is passionate about pushing her industry towards more humane practices that include quality grazing and feed, which honor the animal and ultimately result in a superior product. As a livestock farmer, Martin wants “to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.”
Agriculture’s capacity to effect positive change is a draw for many new farmers. But if you weren’t raised on a farm, finding the resources and a network to get started is challenging. For Laura Mewbourn, owner of Feast & Flora Farm in Meggett, it came down to finding the right people.
Similar to many new farmers, Mewbourn’s collegiate roots are not agricultural; prior to farming she spent years working in academia.
“I went to college and picked the major I was supposed to pick, and ended up in an office job like I was supposed to. But I would walk past landscapers working and think ‘oh gosh, that looks really nice’ but I never let myself go much deeper than that.”
Upon moving to Charleston, Mewbourn stumbled across the Growing New Farmers Program and decided to explore farming as a potential career. While preparing for the transition from academics to agriculture, she immersed herself in podcasts and read countless books on the life of a modern farmer. Yet it wasn’t until her first few weeks in the program, working with her farm mentor and gaining hands-on experience, that she knew she could physically and mentally be a farmer. Without land to inherit or an experienced farm family to lean on for technical support, Mewbourn looked to other farmers in the local network for help.
“You need to find farmers who understand the position you’re in and who are willing to lend their assistance,” Mewbourn says. In order to build a farm from scratch, she relied on these farmers to provide guidance on everything from plowing the fields to buying equipment. Mewbourn acknowledges that farming is a trade requiring a lifetime of research and learning but at some point you have to take the leap, even if it is a small one.
“At the end of the day, you just have to do it,” Mewbourn says. Three years later, she’s managing a successful farm and hosting apprentices of her own.
The challenges these women have overcome represent the greater obstacles the industry is experiencing as farmers across the country work hard to feed their communities. It’s important that as consumers, we not only support farmers at the market but that we invest in the programs and policies focused on building an equitable, inclusive and resilient food system. If the industry continues to attract hardworking, innovative farmers like these, the future looks bright . . . and delicious.
Original article in Edible Charleston available HERE.
What makes one farmer, one market, one system more successful than another? Are these lessons transferrable to other communities or is the success so deeply place-based and too nuanced to replicate? As someone passionate about building a strong local food system (and not reinventing the wheel) I am fascinated by all of the variations and models of getting food from the farms to the table in communities around the world.
If you work in the industry, you know that in agriculture, everyone’s way is the “right way” and it likely looks very different than their neighbors “right way”. These days, I dig down to the root of individual successes to understand WHY a technique, method, or product was working so well. It often takes looking closely at the variables associated with people, place, price, process, and preference in each situation to understand what ingredients create the ideal blend.
Most of my lesson are learned close to home, focusing on those projects gaining traction in the Southeast, navigating the region’s nuanced culture, climate, and clientele but sometimes you need to get out of your own pasture and look over the fence to see if perhaps the grass is greener. I plan to spend the next few posts sharing some of my adventures farther afield, starting with visit to an island across the ocean.
This Spring I found myself exploring a hidden gem known as Terceira Island, home to more cows that people and more cheese than one would think possible for a 150 square mile radius. This dairy and livestock haven is a part of the Portuguese Azores archipelago, located in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean and due to the temperate climate, the grass really IS greener. Beyond the ecological and cultural appeal of the island, their approach to dairy farming was of special interest given the challenges facing our local dairy farmers at home. In case you weren’t aware, the American dairy industry is in a crisis, with small farms being forced out of the business by continued drop in prices and vertical integration of larger companies that cut-out the remaining dairy cooperatives. After a few emails and phone calls, I was able connect with Dr. Moreira da Silva, a professor at the University of the Azores willing to provide a behind-the-scenes tour. Through his connections we were able to meet a diverse range of individuals across the food system of the islands from farm to table and understand the special ingredients (place, people, process) helping their farmers to thrive.
The Place: After a surprisingly short direct flight from Boston (direct to the island!!) my stepmother and I arrived at sunrise to discover a magical place combining the emerald Scottish countryside with picturesque colorful Mediterranean villages. Town and country alike, there were cows everywhere. I mean EVERYWHERE: in the road, tied in front yards, and next to the beach.
Throughout the island, walls of volcanic rock enclose lush fields of green, interspersed with clustered coastal communities full of simple whitewashed houses with red tiled roofs punctuated by incredibly colorful ornate churches. Although small, the island is packed full of diverse landscapes beyond the fields including lava fields, caves, eucalyptus forests, and rocky ocean baths. As we traveled through the city center of Angra do Heroismo on our way to our hotel, we quickly realized why the area was listed as a UNESCO world heritage site with its cobblestone roads, unique building designs, and cliffside views of the ocean. It was here we were able to connect with our gracious host Dr. Silva at the University of the Azores where we discovered an incredible range of tours, introductions, and experiences for us (his wonderful wife Maria even picked us up).
The People: Dr. Silva gave us the rock star treatment, introducing us to his entire agricultural network. Our tour began at the University with a meet and greet with all of the department heads and many of the students (to my delight it also included multiple tea breaks). My academic side glowed hearing about research extremely similar to studies found at my own home base at the College of Charleston including studies of sea-level rise, impacts of climate change on the natural environment as well as the economy, and the island’s biodiversity. On the agricultural side the studies ranged from testing probiotics in yogurt and agricultural marketing to milk fat and artificial insemination. Despite my lack of Portuguese (I naively thought Spanish would work) everyone enthusiastically shared their industry insight and were curious to hear about life in Charleston, South Carolina.
Following the on-campus tour, Moreira and his colleague drove us to the off-campus Experimental Farm and Dairy where we met calves (mini-moos!), cows, herding doggos, and cross-eyed farm cats before visiting the milking parlor and checking out the equipment, feed, and fertilizers. During the tour, we discussed how their dairy industry has traditionally operated with many individual farmers rotating small herds through the fertile fields of grass and milking their cows using portable parlors. Milk is either sold to cooperatives or processed for a variety of dairy products (primarily cheese). This system has allowed residents to participate in the industry without a lot of infrastructure (barns, parlors, processing equipment) and the ability to stay at a smaller scale. Cows grazed on healthy pastures produce better milk and since farmers get paid based on the quality or grade of their milk, there is a built-in incentive on the island to rotate cows regularly and not overgraze. The result: beautiful pastures, happier cows, delicious dairy products, and more profit for dairy farmers. It is important to note that the island is not only in great proximity to European markets but also enjoys a grass-loving climate that stays between 55 and 80 degrees and regular rainfall, two keys to their success harder to replicate at home.
One of Dr. Silva’s former students joined us to share her insights on the agricultural industry in the Azores and gave us a glimpse at the future of farming on the Islands. Alexandra M B Ramos operates a small beef cattle operation while also managing the marketing for the local Beef Cattle Breeders’ Association that focuses on a regional certification for the Azores. Initially considered a secondary by-product of the dairy industry, beef has become a burgeoning market for the islands and Alexandra is interested in making a name for grass-fed beef raised on the lush pastures of the Azores. She invited us for a morning on the farm to get a first hand perspective into the industry at her farm AMBR-Lady Angus Beef. Across an entire ocean, it was comforting to connect with a fellow woman agriculture shamelessly kicking ass (while driving a pink tractor AND truck, no less).
Another highlight of the agricultural adventure (outside of driving a pink tractor) was having the opportunity to meet a group of aspiring farmers and the faculty supporting them. At the request of the program, I provided an overview of the US agricultural system and shared stories of the farmers I am proud to work with in the Southeast. After spending time with Dr. Silva, it is clear that he passionate about connecting students from abroad. Paired with the University of the Azores supporting visiting groups through housing and travel aid, I would highly recommend US universities take advantage of this opportunity!
Process: Throughout the tours, the topic of cooperatives came up frequently and with my interest in both local value chains and food hubs, I was curious how these systems were working on the islands. Dr. Silva coordinated a private tour of the newest local agricultural cooperative and I was completely blown away. Funded with government grants, the facility was completely decked out with full security measures, gleaming white walls, shining stainless steel equipment, large wash/pack lines, and spacious coolers. The facility was capable of processing a diverse range of product including dairy, fruits, vegetables and during two months of the year the processing, packaging, and export of over a million and half stems of protea flowers. The cooperative was distributing product all across the island as well as into national and international markets. One surprising element to the operation: farmers that sell their product to the cooperative were not allowed to sell into any other markets.
After touring farms, we obviously made time to sample the fruits of the labor and visited farm-to-table restaurants to sample cheese and local fare that ranged from small batches on cheese boards to commercial production with an agri-tourism focus.
What were the take-aways and thoughts from our agricultural adventure?
Invest in Farmers: The European Union invests in farming through direct payments (including those linked to environmental practices, small farmers, and those industries facing a volatile market) as well as incredible investments in new farmers under the age of 40 through grants to help launch their businesses and acquire land.
Small but Mighty: The dairy industry seems to be successful because it focuses on utilizing their most abundance resource: grass. Paired with low-infrastructure, portable parlors, and small herds the system allows for less risk and less overhead. The resulting high quality milk and cheese are in steady demand, helping keep the price of the product high enough for continued farmer participation. Interestingly, on my tours I realized I had traveled across an ocean to see a set-up just like one in my own backyard at Sea Island Jerseys and Green Grocer on Wadmalaw Island operated by Celeste and George Albers. Perhaps there is an opportunity for mid-sized dairies in the US to adopt some of these methods in order to participate in local markets hungry for grass-fed, small batch milk and dairy like that found in the Azores.
Cooperatives: The majority of products are processed and sold by cooperatives with much of it exported to the mainland, creating a culture where farmers don’t focus on marketing or sales but stick to production. All of the cooperatives we discussed provided additional benefits to their farmers such as training, equipment sharing, breeding support, and profit sharing. Based on the conversations we had throughout our trip, most farmers were okay with this system but there were definitely a few were interested in learning about direct sales.
Focus on the Future: Young farmers are facing similar challenges regardless of location: land access, financial limitations, need for training in business and production, and the inability of the existing systems to keep up with their changing needs, changing markets and their desire for innovation.
Crowdsource Ideas: There are incredible opportunities for students to travel to the Azores to exchange ideas or host students from the islands in the US to expand their horizons.
My unsolicited advice: As a burgeoning tourist destination with unique natural ecology, the island could greatly benefit from a stronger farm-to-table movement, a focus on agri-tourism, and the increased adoption of organic practices to secure a higher market price while preserving the natural beauty of their land.
In the end, I left with something much more valuable than information or insight: friendship. In the future, I hope to bring students to visit this incredible island to build an even stronger bridge between our communities. Obrigada to Dr. Silva and Alexandra for your incredible hospitality!
The metaphor of referring to the operations side of business as “how the sausage gets made” is used with care in the food system because the person you are working with might actually be talking about grinding meat. Whether a metaphor or literal, the reference makes an important observation regarding the messy, unattractive, or even unpalatable aspects of the operations side of a process often done behind closed doors. The use of the metaphor reveals a desire to enjoy the final product while being separated from the details of how it is made, what it is made from, or even who made it. Yet the information age is replacing the desire for closed doors and hidden processes with a demand for transparency, especially when it comes to food.
The resurgence of interest in the food system attracts an overwhelming amount of writers, researchers, film makers, media personalities, and others trying to pull back the curtain to both understand and expose the inner workings of the system feeding us. Unfortunately, many stories are being told by people that are unable to provide a comprehensive, unbiased, or even accurate portrayal of the challenges and opportunities facing the food system. While an incredible amount of good has come from the increased focus on food, it also brings with it a fair share of misinformation and marketing ploys. For many, it is easier to imagine that a clear and specific “bad guy” exists to blame because then we can arm ourselves with a silver bullet, make a clear choice, and absolve ourselves of guilt. In reality, the issues are complex and span far beyond the fields and farmers markets. Learning “how the sausage gets made” involves following the rarely simple and often complex pathway our food takes to get from farm to table. The “food system” is made up of all of the resources, people, equipment, infrastructure, and transportation that allows each of us to enjoy an incredibly diverse and relatively affordable selection of food (see image below).
As someone who identifies as a “Food System Leader,” it is challenging to explain what these types of positions entail, why they are important, and how we can all play a leadership role in the system. I realized that despite the national publications and famous writers, most people want to hear from someone they know and work with, so it is important that we share within our own circles. With that in mind, here is my perspective on the food system, the issues, the opportunities, and a glimpse of my own journey.
Cue my professor voice. With the incredible growth of our world’s population and the globalization of our economy, the process by which we grow and distribute food has become increasingly complex and specialized. In parallel, the number of people actually growing food has steadily been declining over the last century from 21% of the workforce in 1930 to 2% of the workforce in 2012.The combination of the increase in the complexity of the food system and the decline of farmers has led to a disconnection between the general population and those who feed them. Despite on the average person eating three meals a day, few people understand how their food is grown, processed, packaged, transported, and delivered. Even those in the industry find themselves disconnected from other sectors of the industry, a gap in understanding that has continued to grow as the system adapts to meet changing markets, climate, and consumer demands. Although generally fueled with good intentions, those passionate about the food system often perpetuate short-sighted or misinformed headline grabbing stories that create further disconnection and fail to tell the whole story (including sharing the good news).
As someone that spends time with both small to mid-sized “farm-to-table” farmers and large scale conventional commodity farmers, I can tell you that all farmers are facing high risk, tough markets, low profits, and issues with labor and natural disasters. Despite these commonalities, both organic and conventional farmers are positioned against each other, often pushed into promoting their production styles at the expense of other farmers. Not only unproductive, this distraction results in people missing the deeper issues facing the broader food system. Regardless of production styles, farmers are passionate people whose businesses typically are embedded in their lifestyle and values centered around serving the community the best way they know how. In the United States, 96.4 percent of the crop-producing farms in the U.S. are owned by hardworking families living and working in our communities–not faceless corporations or cute hobby operations. The industry in-fighting and lack of operational understanding creates many barriers to developing policies, programs, and markets that ensure a healthy, equitable, and profitable food system. With only 2% of the workforce in agriculture, we need to find ways to support every single farmer in the industry and with the current Farm Bill under review, now is the time to advocate for the programs supporting the people feeding us.
When talking to people about the food system, the following topics often come as a surprise:
Agriculture is an essential economic driver. We all rely on agriculture in our everyday lives, even if we do not realize it. Specialty crops (fruits, veggies, nuts), meat, dairy, grains, legumes, and eggs are only a few of thousands of ways agriculture supports our daily lives. Commodity crops like corn, soy, and sugar beets are not only used in food but also processed into products and chemicals that are utilized in everything from laundry detergent and cosmetics to tires and upholstery while fiber crops like timber and cotton provide our clothing and paper products. According to the USDA, Agriculture, food, and related industries contributed $992 billion to U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) in 2015, a 5.5-percent share. The output of America’s farms contributed $136.7 billion of this sum—about 1 percent of GDP. These numbers only tell part of the story, with many of the newer and only recently tracked localized food system developments (farmers markets, CSAs, food hubs, etc.) increasing revenue streams for those in the food system and creating jobs in communities across the US.
Immigrants feed America. Currently 72% of farmer workers are immigrants. The United Fresh Produce Association, a produce industry trade group, estimates the industry relies on about 1.5 million to 2 million immigrants. Of these millions, The Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Workers Survey estimates that at least 46% of these workers are illegal.
Transportation and logistics are key. Did you know that the average grocery store only stocks enough food for three days? The entire food system is built around steady shipments of food to meet the consumer demands. Current store models give customers they can have almost anything year-round, including perishable products, even if it means shipping products thousands of miles. In parallel, 23.5 million American’s live in Food Deserts where food is not accessible or Food Swamps where only unhealthy options are available and transportation is the top listed barrier to access in both urban AND rural communities. With the increased demand for local food, the industry is also rebuilding the value chains capable of securing and transporting large and consistent volumes of locally sourced food to serve institutions such as schools and hospitals.
Agriculture lands are in transition. As the average age of farmers in American continues to rise (currently 58), many operators are reaching the point in which they must determine how to manage the transition of their land. According to the USDA, between 2015 and 2019, 93 million acres of land are expected to be transferred. In addition, approximately 39 percent of the 911 million acres of farmland in the contiguous 48 States is rented. Land transition and access have been pushed to the top as one of the key agricultural issues over the next decade.
The face of farming is changing. According to the National Young Farmers Coalition, new farmers increasingly come from non-farm families and are interested in diversified fruit, vegetable, and livestock operations using some type of organic production methods. The group has also seen an increase in people of color and women entering the industry. And it is not only the people that are changing but the places. Urban farming, market gardens, and micro-farms are all on the rise. While the US Census has not previously recording urban agriculture, According to the The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that 800 million people worldwide grow vegetables or fruits or raise animals in cities, producing an astonishing 15 to 20 percent of the world’s food.
Farmers are conservationists. Farmers currently manage millions of acres of land and have a vested interest in stewarding the natural resources on which they rely. This has created incredible opportunities for open land conservation and habitat stewardship. With support from agencies such as the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), farmers can have their property evaluated for conservation needs and participate in programs to plant pollinator habitat, cover cropping, bird habitat restoration, livestock fencing, irrigation, and support for no-till production. These programs are popular among conventional and organic farmers alike and are adopted by farms of all sizes. According to the USDA, roughly 40 percent of combined acreage of corn, soybean, wheat, and cotton were in no-till/ strip-till in 2010-11 (89 million acres per year), with adoption rates higher for some crops (e.g., soybeans) and some regions (e.g., the Southern Seaboard).
Jobs growth in the industry outpaces qualified workers. Based on a report from Purdue University and the USDA, the agriculture and life sciences field needs qualified an estimated 60,000 candidates while qualified graduates are projected closer to 35,0000. Demand will be strongest for plant scientists, water-resource scientists and engineers, farm animal veterinarians, and precision ag and pest control specialists, among other positions.
Why I am I so excited about working in the Food System?
Capacity for social change. Every stage of the system is full of abundant opportunities for positive change, empowerment, and equity. As you can see from some of the key issues above, the food system needs support for educated consumers, advocates, and policy makers at every level.
Opportunities for innovation and a path for career growth. This is an industry experiencing an incredible growth and transformation. The sector is extremely interdisciplinary with an array of roles from engineers and logistics planners to compost processors and seed growers and is no longer confined to small towns in rural communities but also lives in urban cores and in laboratories.
So what does a career in Food Systems look like?
After spending several years working in other industries, my journey into the food system started from the ground up, literally. I have had the pleasure of working as a farm apprentice with Joseph Fields Farm (aka mentor for life) and Our Local Foods at Thornhill Farm before joining the awesome team at Lowcountry Local First. During my time at LLF, I had the opportunity to work with Jamee Haley to develop the Growing New Farmers Program to train aspiring farmers and food system leaders, grow the Eat Local Program to help consumers connect to local products, launch the Dirt Works Incubator Farm to support new farmer businesses, and provided training and support for hundreds of small to mid-sized diversified farmers. This experience gave me a solid platform to launch Wit Meets Grit.
During the last year and half at Wit Meets Grit I have had the pleasure to expand this work to support efforts across South Carolina and the broader Southern Region. Highlights include:
Landscape Assessment of the Southeast to determine opportunities for Local Food Procurement through hospitals with Pavlin Consulting and Healthcare Without Harm.
Development of the SC Local Food Value Chain Mapping Project with SC Food Policy Council, College of Charleston, and SC Department of Agriculture.
If the month of January is any indication, this year is one for the books. Kicking off the year, I had the pleasure of traveling to Nashville Tennessee for the National Farm Bureau Conference and was awarded as a Top Ten Excellence in Agriculture National winner. This was followed by a trip to Chattanooga, TN for the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Conference where I presented on Funding Fundamentals for non-profits, helped with conference social media, and attended the annual SSAWG board meeting.
Upon return from Tennessee, I checked in with the team working on the Local Mapping Project, touched base with The Bee Cause Project, spent a day facilitating the SC Food Hub Network, and made a trip up to Columbia for a town hall with USDA Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and SCDA Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers to share input into the new Farm Bill.
Wrapping up the month, I travelled to Denmark, SC to facilitate the Bamberg County Health Coalition before returning to Columbia for a quarterly SC Food Policy Council board meeting and a visit with SC Farm Bureau. While my days are not often spent in the literal fields anymore, I really enjoy digging into the entire process that gets food from the farm to the table.
Thank you to everyone supporting my journey as a Food System Leader, an adventure I hope to continue for decades to come!
It does not take much digging to unearth the racism embedded in the current agricultural system, infecting the very soil from which the industry has grown, preventing entire communities from thriving. Taking many forms, from the denial of farm loans and heirs property disputes to poor working conditions and low wages, the systematic discrimination against minority and indigenous farmers and farm workers is having an incredible impact on farm families, including the loss of thousands acres of farmland. Beyond the fields, the food system’s inequities result in communities without access to the resources for self-sufficiency from food to education. These injustices are only part of the deeper systemic issues negatively impacting people of color and indigenous populations, issues that in recent years have been brought to the forefront of the national consciousness. This awakening to what it means to be a minority and indigenous person in American society has grown into a movement to disrupt and dismantle the practices and processes of institutional racism. From farm fields to food service, individuals and organizations are rising up to identify and address the structural and cultural challenges preventing agriculture from being a safe, inclusive, and equitable industry. In continued support of this movement, the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group has invited several leaders, including Dr. Tameka L. McGlawn, to provide tools and resources at the January conference in Chattanooga, TN.
“There are many people that have been struggling for generations and we are in a time where transformation is possible, when we can harness the collective force for change,” emphasizes Dr. Tameka L. McGlawn. As the Chief of Strategy, Learning, and Collective Impact for the “Leading for Equity Collective Network”, Dr. McGlawn is passionate about empowering organizations and individuals to create institutional equity that directly addresses structural racism. She expressed that across industries, especially agriculture, there is a hunger for tools and resources to address the underlying conditions that historically and traumatically impact underserved and marginalized communities. As the world shines the light on the injustice and discrimination faced by historically marginalized communities, it is essential that all members of the food system, not only food justice organizations, play an active and deliberate role in dismantling racism in the industry. “Whether you are an advocate, an organizer, a consumer, a researcher, or a funder you need to understand the historical and economic dynamics that inform what happens to farms and farming communities across generations,” notes Dr. McGlawn.
Dr. Tameka L. McGlawn brings a unique perspective to the process. Raised on a farm in rural Mississippi, her childhood was rooted in the land and stories of lived experiences, all against the backdrop of a segregated South. “My very first lessons were anchored in a very authentic perspective. In my community, education was a vehicle to economic freedom and prosperity. I learned firsthand the correlation between education, economic opportunities through access, and the value of individual agency and the power of a unified community,” noted Dr. McGlawn. Ultimately, her range of experiences cultivated purpose and passion for directly confronting structural racism and advocating for building and institutionalizing equitable systems. She believes these systems are built through the implementation of community led initiatives that affect education, economic viability and access to opportunities that create thriving individuals, families and communities.
With 25 years working as a servant leader and collaborator, Dr. McGlawn leverages her knowledge and experience to support individuals and organizations as they navigate through the challenging conversations necessary in the process of dismantling racism within institutions and organizations. It is this experience that Dr. Tameka L. McGlawn will be bringing to the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Conference in January for her pre-conference short course: “Dismantling Racism: A Constructive Approach to Solution Building, Community and Agency”. Join Dr. McGlawn for a day and half journey where she will guide participants through learning activities and facilitated conversation using the principles of servant leadership. Through this highly interactive, 1 ½ day course, Dr. McGlawn will create the conditions that nurture the assets of participants, foster creative solutions, and empower the group to strategize and address practices that can disrupt and dismantle the practices and processes of institutional racism in agriculture. “We are all navigating the roles that we each have to play while recognizing that we each have our strengths and weaknesses, “ notes Dr. McGlawn while adding, “Often people don’t realize how much power they have. We can transform something uncomfortable into something empowering and meaningful.”
Register today for this intensive pre-conference short course and sign up for the two-day general conference as well by December 20th to receive the Early Bird discount. Scholarships are still available for Livestock and Poultry Farmers, as of this publication date (12/15/17).