By Mary Hannah Lindsay
In 2020, the Richland Soil and Water Conservation District (RSWCD), located in Columbia, S.C, launched a Seed Sanctuary through the “Re-Seeding Richland” project. The project received funding support from the Friends of NACD District Grants Program. The Seed Sanctuary is a free seed share program. Residents of Richland County request small packets of wildflower, vegetable and herb seeds, which RSWCD provides to residents at no cost. The goals of the Seed Sanctuary program are to support home and community gardens, and to raise awareness about RSWCD and its conservation programs among new audiences.
Originally intended to operate through RSWCD’s physical location, RSWCD modified the Seed Sanctuary during COVID-19 (coronavirus) so that residents could request seeds online and receive them through the mail. Within only a few weeks of launch, RSWCD received over 2,000 requests for seeds! Staff and remote volunteers worked diligently to fulfill as many requests as possible during the spring and fall of 2020. The project was well-received after promotion through local news outlets and Richland County’s Public Information Office.
Organizations like the Richland County Public Library, Historic Columbia and the Greenville SWCD provided guidance to RSWCD to plan, launch and publicize the project. The University of South Carolina (UofSC) also expressed interest in the Seed Sanctuary program, and RSWCD became a community partner with UofSC in October of 2020. Through this partnership, UofSC directs student volunteers to RSWCD to assist with seed packing and mailing. RSWCD also received seed donations from residents of Richland County to supplement the seed supply.
As a direct result of this project, RSWCD gained nearly 2,000 new Seed Sanctuary participants, most of whom now subscribe to RSWCD’s monthly e-newsletter. The district also garnered new public awareness and social media influence and followers from the project publicity. Even residents who did not sign up to receive seeds now know of RSWCD and are more likely to seek the district out as a voice for conservation.
With spring’s arrival, RSWCD volunteers are packing more seeds in order to meet online demand from residents. In the months to come, RSWCD plans to expand community outreach efforts into more rural parts of Richland County with tables at farmers markets and churches and in-person seed distribution. As it becomes safer to do, RSWCD also plans to expand its volunteer base and hold volunteer events to help with the continuation of the project.
If a conservation district wants to start a seed share program, RSWCD recommends researching if there are any similar programs in their region and finding out if there is a need. Many areas already have successful seed shares (often run by local libraries) that a conservation district could partner with rather than start from scratch. RSWCD also recommends communicating with other conservation districts that have seed share programs, such as South Carolina’s Greenville SWCD and Anderson SWCD, to learn what works based on the needs of the audience the seed share is intended to serve. RSWCD used funding from the Friends of NACD District Grants Program to purchase native, heirloom, seasonal and popular seed varieties in bulk to draw interest from local residents and to attract pollinators. Many large seed distributors have donation programs that can help launch a seed share program, and most require an application to do so. One thing to keep in mind is that this seed will be older, so the germination rate may decrease slightly as opposed to purchased seed. Ultimately, a seed share’s design depends on the community it intends to serve, and this varies from district to district. Research is the best place to start to make sure a seed share will be well-received and will draw public interest and attention.
Learn more about RSWCD’s Seed Sanctuary here.
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