Cultivating connections with sustainable agriculture

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0324ubj.innovate.RebeccaMcKinney.providedBy Rebecca McKinney, Academic Program Director for Sustainable Agriculture, Greenville Technical College

A decade ago, I regularly attended an agricultural conference out of state. I started to realize that many people from South Carolina were there with me. We sat in classrooms where we were told, “You can’t grow that in South Carolina” (ginseng and goldenseal, which actually can be grown here, with the right microclimate) or “These funding sources don’t apply to you.”

I began to wonder why we didn’t have our own organic conference that focused on our climate and soils, our regulatory structure, our needs. We had experts in our state who often did not have the chance to share their knowledge with others. I evaluated potential partners to create such an event. The timing wasn’t right for those relationships. I waited for someone else to realize that we needed our own organic organization. No one stepped forward.

In late summer of 2011 — after I had finished the inaugural class of the S.C. New and Beginning Farmers Program and was again lamenting the need for a conference in our state — my husband said, “Why don’t you just do it?” That was the only push I needed. I founded the S.C. Organization for Organic Living (SCOOL) as the host organization for the S.C. Organic Growing Conference. Sustainable and organic growers in our state were amazingly supportive.

My friend Daniel Parson, a local farmer, worked on the details with me. He secured Presbyterian College as a site, helped me settle on fair compensation for instructors (well above the going rate at similar conferences), and donated vegetables. Other friends — Mac and Robin McGee from Carolina Grassfed Beef and Steve Ellis from Bethel Trails — donated the meat. Anson Mills, purveyors of heirloom grain, delivered the Carolina Gold rice and Sea Island red peas that have become a staple at our lunches. Whole Foods Market provided breakfast. The first S.C. Organic Growing Conference, held in March 2012, was truly a community event. We drew 120 people. In year two, we moved to Columbia, a more central location for our state — and grew to more than 160 attendees.

In fall 2013, Samantha Wallace from Edible Upcountry — our media sponsor and frequent partner — suggested that we talk to chef Alan Scheidhauer at the Culinary Institute of the Carolinas (CIC) at Greenville Technical College’s Northwest Campus. Maybe it was time to bring the event to Greenville. And so the following year, we offered the event in Greenville for the first time, with more attendees than ever before.

CIC and the chefs have been great partners. Over the four years the event has been held at the Northwest Campus, attendees have commented that the food is the best conference food they’ve ever had — and if you’ve ever attended a local-food lunch or dinner at an agricultural conference, you’ll know that’s high praise indeed. The partnership with the institute has made the event flow more smoothly than we ever could have imagined.

After hosting the event in 2014, Chef Alan mentioned that the college had been thinking about starting an agriculture program. As a first step, Sam and I helped schedule a community brainstorming session to gather input about whether or not there was a need for such a program. The answer was a resounding and emphatic “yes.” We followed up by recommending farmers and other food production experts who would serve on an advisory board and help develop the program.

In July 2017, our sustainable agriculture program will wrap up its first year. Our students range in age from 20 to 64. Each has a different vision for their agriculture-related business. They are creating their own sense of community within the program, offering help, advice, and friendship to each other. Those relationships are the driving force behind both the conference and the program. We didn’t want to just build farming and food capacity; our mutual goal has been to develop a cooperative and supportive community of farmers and food producers. The produce we provide for classes at the Culinary Institute of the Carolinas — 4,000 pounds last year — is a bonus.

This year, we had 13 students of our own attending the conference. As we wrapped up the event (now known as Cultivate), we were reminded of the impact that knowledge can have on attendees’ lives.

A young attendee spent her 13th birthday with us; it was the third year she’d been part of the event. Her mother said, “The conference has grown, and we’ve grown with it. The first year, we didn’t know anything. Now we have chickens, rabbits, and 12 raised garden beds.”

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