Healthy local food = economic development tool
West Virginians spent $7.8 billion on food in 2012, according to the WV Small Farm Center. But West Virginia agriculture grosses only $550 million. “We can do a lot better than that,” said Tom McConnell, Center director. A closeknit network of agencies and people are working toward that end. Supermarkets and grocery chains like Krogers are interested in carrying local produce, McConnell said, but they need the produce packaged, cleaned or otherwise ready for sale. “You can’t bring a bushel of beans to Kroger’s,” he said. “We’re taking steps that will help West Virginia farmers get their produce ready for market.” The goal: create in-state capacity for small farmers to package their food: freeze and package vegetables and slaughter and package chickens and cattle. “Why should we be sending most of what we produce out of state for processing?” McConnell said. “We’re developing the capability of doing it ourselves in-state. Once we have that, our markets will expand dramatically.” One key to developing it: School meals. The state spends $80 million a year in federal money on school food. “Even a tenth of that is $8 million,” Office of Child Nutrition coordinator Bekki Leigh pointed out. In 2012-13, 63 West Virginia farmers captured about $400,000 that $80 million through the Farm to School program, with the help of OCN staffers. That number had doubled well before school was out the following year. “We’re really growing,” Leigh said.
“We’ve got people creating software that will let farmers combine their produce for sale,” Leigh said. “If we create more demand, we need more farmers,” said Kelly Crane, director of the West Virginia Farmers Market Association. “Farming used to be a family-based operation, passed down through generations, but that has not held true in the last few generations.” Today, the average age of West Virginia farmers is 58 and climbing. “But there is a growing back-to-the-land movement among younger generations interested in getting into farming, and programs are popping up to meet those demands,” Crane said.
The Farm to School program has joined forces with the Supervised Agriculture Experience (SAE) program to encourage interested students to start small agricultural experiences. In 2013, nine students made between $2,000 and $10,000 apiece selling their home-grown produce to schools and at farmers markets. The number of West Virginia farmers markets has tripled in the past ten years. State farmers markets sold more than $4 million in produce in the last six months of 2012, the Farmers Market Association estimates. A WVU study estimated that the farmers market ripple effect on downtown Morgantown alone brought in $450,000 in 2009.
Want to sell more local food? Here are some great resources:
- From the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition:
- Healthy Food Access Portal. This is one-stop shopping, a wonderful national collection of resources. Don’t miss it.
- West Virginia Office of Child Nutrition. This state office, which oversees school and child care food, has been the driving force behind the expansion of local food production and the growth of the market for local food. Working through the Farm to School program, the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program, and school meals programs, collaborating with the state local foods network, OCN has opened many doors to better eating and food sales for West Virginians.
- WV Small Farm Center (WVU Extension Service)
- WV Farmers Market Association. Also try www.wvfarmers.org.
- Downstream Strategies: a research and thinktank, located in Morgantown, focused (among other things) on expanding markets and distribution systems for local foods: /
- New Appalachian Farm and Research Center: a working Upshur County farm/research center (including Fish Hawk Farms) finding ways to process West Virginia farm food for delivery to schools and the public.
Inventory the markets for local food in your area.
Several pages on this Web site can help you make a plan for expanding your market:
- Farm to school: This can be a real opportunity. What’s happening in your community?
- Senior centers and other organizations that serve food. Are they open to taking more local food?
- Farmers markets. See the Farmers Market page.
- Farm to restaurant: West Virginia is just getting started. Here’s a state that’s further along, a model http://www.farmtotablenm.org/programs/farm-to-restaurant/. Also see http://www.farmtotablenm.org/programs/farm-to-restaurant/
- Grocery stores and convenience stores. What do they need, to carry local produce?
- Look at various ways to distribute local produce.
- Find ways to build greenhouses and/or high tunnels at your schools.
- Grow vegetable plants at school and send them home with kids who want to plant home gardens.
- Is your Farm to School program collaborating with the Supervised Agriculture Experience, sponsored by the Future Farmers of America and coordinated through the state Office of Child Nutrition? Also see http://smallfarmcenter.ext.wvu.edu/2013wvffacomp.
Expand programs that train people to produce and serve healthy food:
- Adult training program examples:.
- SAGE. Sustainable Agriculture Entrepreneurs http://www.charlestonareaalliance.org/economic-development/sage-(sustainable-agriculture-entrepreneurs). The Charleston Area Alliance’s farmer-training-program, SAGE (Sustainable Agriculture Entrepreneurs) teaches people how to grow commercially and sustainably in small, urban or sub-urban spaces. Students learn how to sell produce as part of household income.
- KISRA (Kanawha Institute for Social Research and Actions) includes an urban farm with two greenhouses, farming and culinary skills training and a food truck. Produce and plants are sold at farmers’ markets, to area hotels, restaurants and public schools, plus direct sales to community residents. The project creates jobs for people who need a second chance. http://www.wvgazette.com/News/201302270326
- The new Potomac Highlands Food and Farm Initiative (PHFFI) (Tucker County) aims to increase production and sales of locally produced foods and promote culinary tourism in the Potomac Highlands. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Potomac-Highlands-Food-and-Farm/461480833910804
- Grow Appalachia, Berea College’s multi-state program has a strong presence in West Virginia: https://www.berea.edu/grow-appalachia/
Student training examples:
- Future Farmers of America, statewide in the public schools, have a yearly business plan competition for students who would like to launch their own food and/or farm business. Make sure the program is well-supported in your schools. http://www.wvffa.org. Info about the business plan competition: http://smallfarmcenter.ext.wvu.edu/2013wvffacomp
- Supervised Agricultural Experience: In the schools, the SAE program in has teamed up with Farm to School since 2012. They are giving young people financial incentives and direct practical help if they want to try farming. In 2012-13, 14 school programs were funded through the joint effort, and those programs in turn funded nine students who sold their produce at farmers markets and to their schools through Farm to School. See program guidelines.
- Get children gardening early, learning about food: . See Junior Master Gardener curricula and resources
- Organize community support behind healthy food. Here’s Food Inc.’s community organizing guide,
- Ingredients for Change.
- Consider joining forces with other communities or organizations for a broader food effort. Here are some models:
- Morgan County Food and Farming: a broad collection of resources: http://mcfoodandfarms.org/
- Grow Ohio Valley: a northern panhandle non-profit aiming to make the Wheeling area food supply more healthy through gardening, training and other means. Here’s a public radio story: http://wvpublic.org/post/reclaiming-abandoned-ohio-valley-grows-local-food-economy
- Potomac Highlands Food and Farm Initiative. A new coalition group covering the counties in the Potomac Highlands, dedicated to expanding the supply of healthy food, through gardening, farmers markets, and retail outlets.
- Greenbrier Valley Local Foods Initiative (Maxwelton). Operated by the Greenbrier Valley Economic Development Corporation, advancing the healthy local food economy in the Greenbrier Valley.
- Kanawha Urban Ag Alliance: dedicated to spreading gardening and urban agriculture in the Charleston area.
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