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Locally grown food movement expands

         PHILIPPI, W.Va. — Locally grown food, always popular in the Mountain State, is becoming even more so.       
“The local food movement is really taking off in West Virginia. We are one of the top states for caring about local food and local food sourcing,” said Elizabeth Spellman, executive director of the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition.

Elizabeth Spellman, executive director of the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition, discusses food hubs during an April 22 workshop in Philippi. Food hubs collect products from many farms and store, prepare and distribute them to retailers, restaurants, schools and consumers. Workshop topics ranged from food hub relationships with growers and producers to how to price products. Photo courtesy of Garnet Bruell/W.Va. Food & Farm Coalition
Elizabeth Spellman, executive director of the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition, discusses food hubs during an April 22 workshop in Philippi. Food hubs collect products from many farms and store, prepare and distribute them to retailers, restaurants, schools and consumers. Workshop topics ranged from food hub relationships with growers and producers to how to price products. Photo courtesy of Garnet Bruell/W.Va. Food & Farm Coalition

         For proof, Spellman cited the 2015 Locavore Index, which ranks West Virginia 14th best among the states in consuming locally-produced food.

         Farmers markets are the most visible evidence of the movement.

         West Virginia Department of Agriculture spokesman Buddy Davidson said that in 2002 the department identified only 16 farmers markets in the state. “In 2014 we had nearly 180 markets that accepted vouchers in farmers’ market nutrition programs,” he said.

         Kelly Crane, executive director of the West Virginia Farmers Market Association, said, “There’s a lot of consumer interest in local food and how your food is grown. Farmers markets also are really good for community development, for downtowns.”

         If you are a farmer, “it’s a lot easier to take your products to a market than it is to get your products into Kroger,” Crane said. “Farmers markets are not always the last place a farmer sells products, but they are typically the first place beginning producers go to sell and test products.”

         Farmers selling direct to the consumer cut out the middleman and get to keep more of the money.

         “One thing special about the farmers market movement is it’s truly a grass-roots movement, spurred by farmers and communities more than a movement created by federal funding or top-down policy,” Crane said.

         West Virginia farmers market sales increased from $4 million in 2012 to $9 million last year, according to the farmers market association.

         That sounds like a lot. Until one learns that West Virginia farms produce $26 million worth of fruits and vegetables annually and West Virginians consume $421 million worth.

         West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick has said less than $1 billion of the $7.3 billion worth of food consumed annually by West Virginians is raised in the state. Helmick calls this gap “the $6-billion-dollar opportunity.”

         Farmers markets are visible because of the interaction between farmers and consumers but they are just one facet of the local food movement.

         Gardening has always been popular in West Virginia. Just ask any old timer about World War II victory gardens. In 1944 home gardeners produced over 40 percent of the nation’s fresh vegetable supply.

         Now there’s a surge in community gardens.

         “I would definitely say that community gardens have increased dramatically within the last five to seven years,” said John Porter, the West Virginia University extension agent in Kanawha County. “I know we have at least 12 community gardens in Kanawha County alone.”

         One reason: The 2009 economic recession.

         “People wanted to be able to provide affordable food for their families,” Porter said. “The interest has continued thanks to interest in locally grown foods and knowing the source of one’s food.”

         According to the National Gardening Association, the number of Americans growing their own food in home and community gardens increased from 36 million to 42 million households between 2008 and 2013.

         “That’s a 17 percent increase and represents the highest level of food gardening in more than a decade,” the association reports.

         Three of five consumers were interested in food gardening in 2013, according to the 2014 Garden Trends Report by Garden Media Group, a marketing and public-relations firm.

         According to the report, sales of vegetable plants in 2014 exceeded sales of annual ornamentals for the first time.

         The local food movement began making inroads in schools across the Mountain State after British chef Jamie Oliver agitated for change in 2010 in Huntington, notorious at the time as “The Unhealthiest City in America.”

         In 2013 the state Legislature passed the Feed to Achieve Act. One focus of the law is to form or expand partnerships to assist in the development of community gardens, farm-to-school programs and other programs that teach students how to grow healthy food.

         Davidson, the state Agriculture Department spokesman, said there are more than 75 school gardens in West Virginia. Meanwhile, “farm-to-school sales, while still a fraction of the total expended, have doubled the past two years in a row to about $700,000,” he said.

         Helmick, the agriculture commissioner, has ambitious plans to help farmers capture more of the West Virginia food market. His most publicized initiative is a plan to help farmers grow potatoes in 50 of the state’s 55 counties this year.

         Meanwhile, there are structural changes underway that are aimed at helping locally grown food find more outlets. One example: Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA.

         The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines CSA as “a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation so that the farmland becomes, either legally or spiritually, the community’s farm, with the growers and consumers providing mutual support and sharing the risks and benefits of food production.

         “Typically, members or ‘shareholders’ of the farm or garden pledge in advance to cover the anticipated costs of the farm operation and farmer’s salary,” the department explained. “In return, they receive shares in the farm’s bounty throughout the growing season, as well as satisfaction gained from reconnecting to the land and participating directly in food production.

         “Members also share in the risks of farming, including poor harvests due to unfavorable weather or pests. By direct sales to community members, who have provided the farmer with working capital in advance, growers receive better prices for their crops, gain some financial security, and are relieved of much of the burden of marketing.”

         According to an online directory maintained by Local Harvest, there are 33 Community Supported Agriculture entities in West Virginia. Examples include Mountain Harvest Farm, Morgantown; Round Right Farm, Terra Alta; and Evans Knob Farm, Bruceton Mills.

         Another structural innovation: Food hubs. They collect, or aggregate, products from many farms and store, prepare and distribute the products. Small producers can work together this way to supply large customers like restaurants, schools and hospitals.

         Spellman said, “We have a ton of farmers’ markets, especially compared to other states. Now people are starting to see their opportunities have been met in those outlets and are shifting more to helping develop food hubs.”

         A November 2014 study by Downstream Strategies of Morgantown found just two U.S. Department of Agriculture-registered food hubs in West Virginia: Fish Hawk Acres in Rock Cave, Upshur County, and Monroe Farm Market in Union, Monroe County.

         However, the study identified 21 other businesses and organizations in the state working on aggregation. They range from The Wild Ramp in Huntington to the Mountain People’s Co-op in Morgantown to six eastern panhandle farm markets.

         Spellman said, “Food hubs and Community Supported Agriculture rely on strong community buy-in to work. The fact that West Virginia is seeing a huge growth in food hubs and is starting to see growth in CSAs is, I think, a strong indicator of broad community support for local food in West Virginia. The next question is: how far can it go? That’s what we’ll be exploring this next year as we put together some market possibility studies to help give people better advice as to which markets are lucrative enough or worthwhile exploring.”

         Spellman’s organization, the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition, is a nonprofit headquartered in Mt. Hope, Fayette County. It was established to build, support and strengthen a statewide network of those involved in West Virginia’s local food economies.

         Asked if local food producers can eventually find ways to supply large grocery chains, Spellman said, “It’s a very worthwhile goal to be aiming at because it’s the real way to increase healthy food access.

         “However, the direct-to-consumer market has not quite been saturated so we’re seeing farmers prefer to sell direct — and rightfully so,” she said. “It’s a business decision to sell food through a farmers market, to a restaurant, through a CSA or through a food hub because you’re going to get a bigger margin than if you’re selling wholesale.”

         As for large-scale agricultural projects, Spellman said that if a community already has been blighted by other industries, “let’s make sure we’re not further blighting areas by factory farming or large-scale industrial production.”

         The question is, she said, “How can we make sure that the food we’re producing is produced in an economically sustainable way that’s lifting up local producers?”


Helpful websites

Find a farmer’s market:


Find a community garden:


Find a CSA:


Find West Virginia products:


Learn about food hubs: (click on “W.Va. Food Hub Feasibility Assessment”)


Start a school garden:


Become a local food policy advocate:


Find tools for farmers: 


Try something new:


Other helpful sites:

         WVU Extension Service:

         West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition:

         Kanawha Urban Ag Alliance:

Collaborative for the 21st Century Appalachia:

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