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Monroe County’s JarHead Farms raises funds by successfully pitching its need to grow and combat food deserts

West Virginia Press Association

ALDERSON, W.Va. – Natasha Zoe of Jarhead Farms in Monroe County is on to something special – she is managing a profitable farm and delivering fresh fruits to people who live in food deserts. Her business pitch is being heard and winning awards.

In the past two months, Zoe has excelled in two pitch competitions and earned a “Try This WV” mini-grant award to secure much-needed equipment to get her fresh farm fruits to customers more quickly and efficiently.

JarHead Farms placed first in the Pitch Southern West Virginia Business Idea competition by expert judges and was also the audience’s favorite on April 23 on the campus of West Virginia University Institute of Technology (WVU Tech). The West Virginia Hive and WVU Tech Launch Lab coordinated the competition to boost regional small businesses and entrepreneurs and students. The $2,250 in prize winnings earned by Zoe will be used to purchase two 99-liter coolers to store and transport fruit and vegetables.

Zoe, a retired Marine who returned home and turned a 10.8-acre cattle farm into one that offers a variety of fruits and vegetables, also recently placed in the West Virginia Veterans and Heroes to Agriculture Pitch Competition sponsored by the West Virginia Department of Agriculture. The $6,719 prize allowed Zoe to create walk-in cold storage on the farm and to purchase crop boxes.

Also in March, JarHead Farms secured a $2,700 mini-grant in the “Try This WV” program that supports healthy community projects. Those funds are being used to purchase their first two portable coolers for safe transport of fruits.

According to Zoe, JarHead Farms has started a new mobile market. “Our mobile market operates six days a week, most days setting up at two different locations during the day,” she said. “We are bringing West Virginia Grown fruit to our local food deserts in rural Monroe, Greenbrier and Summers Counties. We have intentionally picked locations and times to be accessible to those with food and financial insecurities.” Zoe said customers can use EBT (food stamps), and SNAP Stretch and Senior Vouchers will be honored as funds are available.  

Zoe said her motivations include the 2014 closing of an IGA supermarket in Alderson, the high poverty rate (40.4 percent) in Alderson, and the poor health statistics of West Virginians (45th in consumption of fruits and vegetables, and 49th in obesity, multiple chronic diseases, and premature death rates). “In 2023, 50 percent of requests for fresh fruit went unfulfilled because we simply did not have the infrastructure to fulfill the need,” said Zoe.

The infrastructure took time to build. “Last year, our first full year in business, my Dad made 35 trips to the Eastern Panhandle to purchase fruit with a Jeep Cherokee,” said Zoe. She said JarHead Farms took that profit and purchased more fruit trees and bushes and increased its logistics capabilities in order to meet the growing demand. “My husband rebuilt a diesel pickup truck, so with two different trailers we can now move 6,000 pounds of fruit in each trip. We built a network of farmers, co-ops, and country stores on a regular distribution route. We are always adding more value-added products to utilize any fruit that does not sell fresh, thereby increasing our market from seasonal to full year. In the food industry, if you can’t document it, it did not happen. We need coolers with Bluetooth connected documentation to prove our safe handling and transportation.”

Zoe believes lack of access to healthy local fruit and vegetables is responsible for the unhealthy markers West Virginians experience. “Food deserts and financial security add to our neighbors’ resorting to highly processed foods and the unhealthy outcomes that result.”

Pitch competition earnings and the mini-grant will allow JarHead to purchase four new coolers. “The equipment will allow my Dad to operate the mobile market while the rest of the JarHead Farms team simultaneously picks and safely transports fruit,” said Zoe. “Last year, we had to make choices between picking fruit and selling at farmers’ markets.  Also last year, we destroyed a whole day’s harvest of blueberries because we were not able to chill them in a timely fashion.”

JarHead Farms is a WV Hive client advised by Mary Legg, senior business advisor. “Natasha, her father and team are running a stable, sustainable farm and meeting a genuine unmet need in distressed counties,” said Legg. “Their progress has been considerable in the past year and JarHead Farms is on a solid path to be even more successful.”

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