Preston Growers Co-op featured at Farm Aid concert


The State Journal

BRUCETON MILLS, W.Va.  — A group of Preston County farmers was recently honored by Farm Aid.

The nonprofit organization that promotes a family farm system of agriculture chose to feature the Preston Growers Co-op in a video played at the 2017 Farm Aid concert on Sept. 16 in Burgettstown, Pa.

Preston Growers Co-op President Joyce Shafer, second from left, speaks at a press conference before the 2017 Farm Aid concert Sept. 16 in Burgettstown, Pa.
(Submitted photo)

And one local farmer — co-op President Joyce Shafer — was invited onstage with Farm Aid’s founders, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp, and fellow board member Dave Matthews.

“Farm Aid was excited to share the story of Preston Growers Co-op for a number of reasons,” said Farm Aid spokeswoman Jennifer Fahy. “First, we have long supported cooperatives as an important tool for farmers to come together, increase strength, and reach bigger markets. Secondly, we love to see farmers pioneering new markets, as in the case of Preston Growers with the farm to school movement. Finally, as we discussed in the video and on stage, family farmers are the backbone of agriculture in West Virginia, and the threats to their survival have not diminished.

“The story of Preston Growers Co-op is the story of farmers working together, along with many others — from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, West Virginia University Extension, the public school system and more,” Fahy said. “The story demonstrates the many pieces of the puzzle that are critical to the growth of local and regional food systems.”

Long before the concert, Farm Aid staff visited and filmed Joyce and Bob Shafer on Heritage Farm near Bruceton Mills and James and Darwin Stemple of Stemple Brothers Farm in Terra Alta.

“I was blown away,” Joyce said. “I was so honored.”

The video can be seen on the co-op’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/prestongrowerscoop/ and at https://youtu.be/vfCuQ7UB-ZA.

In the video, the Shafers and the Stemples talk about the history of the co-op, founded in 2014, the decline of family farms, and its initiatives to meet schools’ demand for local foods through the federal Farm to School program.

“Other groups have the same kind of vision and goals,” she said. “We’re all trying to save the family farms. The farms are declining and it makes us all sad. We’re looking for ways to retain those farms and raising vegetables is one way. Having a cow-calf operation and selling hay and corn and all that is still very necessary. Can’t we combine it with growing vegetables and somehow make that work to help keep the farms going?

“I’m super committed to working with the schools, especially in Preston County, where most of my grandkids go or have gone,” Shafer said. “We’re making good progress.”

She said Preston County Schools Child Nutrition Coordinator Dylan Beitz has been supportive in buying produce and hosting growers at farmers’ markets at community schools.

Future markets will be held from 3:30-5 p.m. Oct. 4 at Terra Alta/East Preston School, from 3:45-5:15 p.m. Oct. 11 at Bruceton School and from 3:45-5:15 p.m. Oct. 18 at Central Preston Middle School.

The co-op members aggregate their produce so they can fill big food orders from the school system.

A recent initiative supplies lettuce to the schools. Growing a lot of leafy greens wasn’t difficult. The challenge was delivering it to the schools in a form that was easy for the staff to use.

“Schools don’t have resources to wash and chop the head lettuce,” Shafer said. “I have a commercial kitchen that is FDA-approved, so I said, ‘Why don’t we wash and chop the lettuce and bag it and take it to them?’ We’re doing that, and it’s working well. What they’re getting is so very fresh.”

The West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition recommended the Co-op when Farm Aid asked for suggestions of farmers to profile at the concert.

“The Preston Growers Cooperative is a compelling story of several farmers coming together to work cooperatively to solve a problem,” Coalition Executive Director Spencer Moss said. “This group is paving the way for other agricultural successes in the state. I couldn’t think of a better group of farmers for Farm Aid to highlight this year.”

The Shafers, the Stemples, and Terra Alta farmer and West Virginia University Extension Service Small Farms Center Director Tom McConnell attended the Farm Aid concert earlier this month and participated in a press conference before the show. Farm Aid will post on its website at a later date a video from the press conference.

Shafer said she hopes the co-op will reap a couple of benefits from the exposure.

“We have had a few people asking if they can be part of it,” Shafer said. “If we can gain members for the co-op and customers, that would be awesome. The recognition is wonderful, but if we can reach one young farmer who’s willing to try (to make a living off the land) and who will let us old farmers teach him how, that’s what makes it all worth it for us.”

State Journal Correspondent Cynthia McCloud can be reached at [email protected].

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