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Business Brief: The USDA’s Strikeforce Initiative in South Carolina

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the expansion of its Strikeforce Initiative to 10 other states, including the Carolinas. In South Carolina, the program will target 19 rural counties stuck in persistent poverty. In a multi-tiered collaboration with community organizations and local agencies, the aim is to built partnerships and get these communities better access to investment and funds in order to stabilize the economy.

Amy Overstreet is with the South Carolina Natural Resources Conservation Service, one of the four USDA umbrella agencies working the initiative. Overstreet’s agency will work with private land owners and farmers to help increase food production and incentives.

Amy Overstreet: “In SC, we are targeting 19 counties for this initiative. [Allendale, Bamberg, Barnwell, Beaufort, Calhoun, Clarendon, Colleton, Darlington, Dillon, Dorchester, Florence, Hampton, Jasper, Lee, Marion, Marlboro, Orangeburg, Sumter, and Williamsburg].  And these counties are selected because of their designation as persistent poverty, which means when you look at numbers like the number of children in schools that are on free or reduced lunch, those are the types of factors we looked at when we selected these counties. And when you drive through these counties, you’ll notice that they have pockets of poverty, areas where there are underserved customers and people that could utilize the assistance of USDA agencies. Whether it’s assistance from the NRSC, we provide technical and financial assistance to private land owners and farmers, but we also have USDA Rural Development and the Farm Service Agency who are very involved in this initiative and they are there to partner with local and state governments and community-based organizations, on projects that really focus on strengthening the economic development and job creation in these 19 counties in South Carolina.

With the NRCS, we have a program called the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. And that assists farmers of any scale, whether they’re large farmers, but particularly in these counties, we are looking at assisting small, limited-resource farmers, and basically what we’re trying to do help them do is protect and improve soil and water quality. But also, improve their bottom line, help them make a profit. So we can assist them with installing wells, um irrigation systems which are particularly helpful during times of drought. We help them look at their soil quality, and make sure that they’re not implementing any farming practices that might be um, harmful to any nearby water sources.

Rural Development also comes in and does a lot of community development, you know they can assist homeowners with their water systems and utilities and they also do a lot of downtown development, so there’s so many different types of services available. We’re also working with USDA Food and Nutrition Service, and they’re the ones that are actually looking into the schools and ensuring that school children have access to healthy, locally-produced food.”

Accessing USDA funds

Amy Overstreet: “Well sometimes, some of these individuals might not readily have internet availability, or maybe they don’t receive the newspaper because you know, we do a lot of our communication online nowadays. Um, and through newspapers. So sometimes these people might not have access to that information, so part of the Strikeforce I’s goal is to really get out in these communities and literally knock on doors. We want to find out who are in these communities, what their needs are, so one of the things we’re going to be doing is putting on outreach meetings, out there in the communities, in the churches, and make sure that uh, the customers that we weren’t reaching before, maybe they have absolutely no idea what types of services we offer, those are the people we really are targeting.”

“If you look at some of our success stories, where we do have a lot, where we’ve reached out in the communities and we’ve formed those partnerships, and we really rely on the community-based organizations to kind of help us get our foot in the door. Um, you know because often sometimes people may be hesitant to work with the federal government. Um, but what I like to say about our particularly agency, all of our services are voluntary. WE are no regulatory in any way. I mean, we have soil conservationists, um who are just there to provide assistance. And all of our technical assistance is absolutely free, so we do have a lot of people here in South Carolina who’ve benefitted from USDA services and education, but we know that there are more individuals out there who have not accessed our services, and that’s what this is really about, is making sure that we serve all of the customers in South Customer.”

"One of the things that we do through our EQIP program like I’ve mention, is we’re really trying to increase our outreach and assistance with these small and limited-resource farmers. These are producers who generally have acreages totally less than 100 acres. A lot of times they are producing specialty crops. Those are fruits and vegetables that require certain growing conditions. Um, and although we don’t have really cold temperatures here in South Carolina, it is nice to be able to grow some of these specialty crops throughout the year. And not have to worry about freezing temperatures. So one of the things EQIP does, is we provide cost share, like all of our programs do, provide cost share, um and for small and limited-resource farmers that qualify, we provide 90 percent of the cost to install a structure called a high tunnel. It’s sort of like a greenhouse, but basically it enables these farmers to grow whatever it is they’re growing whether it’s strawberries or whatnot all throughout the year, and not have to worry about damage to their crops from cold temperatures.

Some of the other things that EQIP might provide financial assistance for, like I said, are irrigation, which is a big issue here, especially in times of drought. We also help them with field buffers and rotational grazing systems, and these are things that are going to protect soil and water quality, but also hopefully increase their yields.”

An issue we’re looking at here in South Carolina right now and there’s a term that’s been kind of been getting a lot of attention lately --  food deserts. If you look at a lot of these counties, there are food deserts and that’s basically where you have individuals that live in communities and they can’t just hop in the car or hop on a bike and get to a grocery store or a Wal-Mart, or a farmer’s market where they can have quick access to any kind of wholesome or locally-produced food. That’s a food desert. And those are the types of issues we’re trying to look at, is where is there a food desert in this area? Why isn’t there a farmer’s market? Well, perhaps there are farmer’s growing things but they don’t know exactly how to get together and maybe form a co-op, so that they could provide fresh fruits and vegetables for the local citizens. But absolutely, Strikeforce is about making all these links between the producers and the markets and the consumers so that we can help improve these communities and you know, obviously help both the adults and the children is so essential and we really think that by helping the farmers and making those linkages, we can help the citizens, the farmers, and improve the economic viability of these counties.

I just want to emphasize the fact that there is a USDA service center in all throughout SC, and just because we’re targeting these 19 counties, we’re still providing statewide assistance in SC, and I encourage anybody who thinks they might be able to receive either financial or technical assistance from the USDA to go into the service center, meet their local reps, develop that personal relationship because we do have a lot to offer and we’re here to serve South Carolina citizens and hopefully they’ll come in and meet us.”