West Virginians are growing. Vegetables, herbs, flowers and even mushrooms are sprouting up wherever people have a patch of land, a porch for containers or a bright windowsill. Local farmers are seeing a strong increase in consumers who want to purchase locally.
“Our cultural landscape changed quickly because of the coronavirus pandemic,” said Jessica Pollitt Hudson, Youth Health Educator for the WVU Extension Service Family Nutrition Program. “People became concerned about food safety and saw gardening as a way to have some control over the food they eat and feed to their families.”
Hudson said the WVU Family Nutrition Program is responsible for “Grow This: The West Virginia Garden Challenge,” a program that encourages people to try vegetable gardening. In past years they registered about 200 participants. This year, they registered 25,000 in a couple of weeks, and had to close registration before Easter. There are 2,000 participants in Kanawha County alone.
Aimee M. Neeley Figgatt, Outreach Specialist for the West Virginia Conservation Agency, has a similar experience. Her agency supports the program that Hudson coordinates and offers its own seed distribution program. Each year, the agency distributes up to 6,000 free pollinator seed packets in the spring and fall. This spring, Figgatt helped the Capitol Conservation District distribute free vegetable packets.
“I am excited to see the program grow,” said Figgatt. “My family has a farm and I like to see more people learning about gardening and sharing their experiences with their children. People are discovering the joy of growing food and learning what it means to care for the land.”
Spencer Moss, West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition executive director, takes a broader view. Moss says the national focus on food production helps small farms and producers who make things like jams, salsas and sauces.
“We see a trend toward people wanting more local foods,” said Moss. “People feel that buying locally gives them more access to safely produced foods with less handling. When the supply chain is shortened, people know the produce they are purchasing was grown nearby, picked within hours or days, and handled only by a few people.”
Agriculture biz booming
This is heartening news to West Virginia Department of Agriculture Commissioner Kent Leonhardt. “It is rewarding to see the strong interest in agriculture and to talk with owners of feed and seed stores who say they are selling seeds and garden equipment like crazy,” he said. “I am proud of our agricultural businesses and the department staff who have supported efforts to educate West Virginians about how agriculture is good for the health of our citizens and our state’s economy.”
Leonhardt said Gov. Jim Justice’s recognition of agriculture as an essential business during the COVID-19 pandemic is helpful. “We are lucky in West Virginia that there have been no major outbreaks [of the virus] and that we have been able to communicate with our local farmers about the safety guidelines that they must follow based on Center for Disease Control and West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources recommendations.”
“As an industry, agriculture has a direct connection and effect on what happens with our state,” he said. “We are an industry that supports the economy and protects the environment. “
Leonhardt said when the USDA stepped up during trade negotiations with China and bought more commodity foods, West Virginia participated in that effort. Some of the food reached food pantries through the Feed America program for which West Virginia farmers supplied $6 million in food.
“Some of our employees are volunteering at food banks during the pandemic,” he said. In Monongalia County, volunteers following safety procedure with face masks and gloves are helping to put together food packages for families with children.
The pandemic has shed light on areas that need addressed, Leonhardt said. For instance, livestock farmers have a real need for local meat processing services. This would give them a more cost- and time-effective processing option and provide the public with the security of knowing that food processing is available in the state. Also, farmers are looking at new ways to do business, whether it’s raising different produce, developing new services or partnering with others to reach consumers.
Coalitions and the internet
The West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition supports local efforts to build communities and strengthen infrastructure in the agricultural industry.
“When farmers and value-added businesses join to promote and distribute their products, the businesses and the public benefit,” said Moss. She cites Turnrow Appalachian Farm Collective as an example.
“Turnrow has more than 100 partners on its roster and is enrolling more all the time,” she said. “In 2019, the collective did $279,000 in sales, $70,000 of which was in food access and nutrition programming. They expected sales to double in 2020, but with the pandemic, Turnrow has done $120,000 worth of sales in April alone. Turnrow has seen a jump from 40 regular weekly retail customers to 400 at their 10 delivery sites, one of which is Charleston’s Capitol Market.”
One of the Turnrow partners is Kanawha County-based Hernshaw Farms which grows and sells gourmet fresh and dried mushrooms and mushroom kits, transforming former mine land into farmland with spent mushroom blocks. (Spent mushroom is a compost material that remains after a crop of mushrooms.)
“The pandemic certainly has changed things for us. Hernshaw Farms has been lucky to see over 500% sales increases in local, national, and international online retail,” said George Patterson, owner and founder. “The internet has kept us alive, and made it so we are generating more income and growing fewer mushrooms.
“Before the pandemic, 75% of my business was selling to our wonderful local restaurants,” he said. “Now around 65% of my business is selling mushroom grow kits online across the country and even internationally.”
Patterson said that without Turnrow his company would have lost out on the local market completely. “Turnrow makes up about 22% of our total income now, and generates more revenue than we were seeing from local restaurants before the pandemic. Most of this income comes from individual online sales. It has grown so much that we are now looking to hire and expand.
“It’s absolutely amazing to experience the effect of the internet on small farming. Turnrow is ahead of the curve in enabling small farmers to capitalize on the broader local market with fewer costs, something a lot of rural places don’t have, and that credit goes to its mission and its founders,” Patterson said.
“Turnrow is the heart and soul of the future of agriculture in the Mountain State and beyond. What Doug and April Koenig and Fritz Boettner have created and the ship that Kelsey Abad now steers has set sail towards a new online era for local farmers.”
The pandemic has served as a catalyst that farmers needed to make an actual living, according to Patterson. “I’m extremely grateful for our wonderful and loyal local customers. Their willingness to try something new and their patience, kindness, and love of all things local makes me love what I do.
“This is just the beginning for us; I can’t wait to use our compost to start turning more mineland to farmland to bring more great local produce to the table.”
Farmers markets and SNAP
According to Moss, there are 94 farmers’ markets throughout the state. About a dozen will probably not open this year for reasons associated with the pandemic or communications. “We hosted a webinar to help markets look at options and we are working with a handful of markets to help them get set up and follow the restrictions they must adhere to,” she said. People can visit www.farmfreshwv.com to locate markets.
In Morgantown, Shepherdstown and Williamstown, markets are operating on a drive-through basis on weekends. Morgantown vendors are seeing about 150 cars every Saturday.
Moss said the SNAP Stretch program is increasing interest in fresh foods among children. Started in 2018 to encourage SNAP recipients to buy more fresh and local fruits and vegetables, the Stretch program allows SNAP participants to double or triple food dollars at 19 participating state farmers’ markets. The West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition, WVU Extension Family Nutrition SNAP Education and West Virginia Farmers Market Association introduced the program. SNAP recipient families with children present receive additional dollar for dollar match in Kids Coupons that can be spent only by the children.
“This allows children to have purchasing power to choose their own healthy fresh fruits and vegetables,” Moss said. “The innovation was a response to survey results from the 2017 WV Kids Pop-Up Market Program. Parents surveyed said the majority of participating children ate almost all of the produce they purchased with the coupons.”
Creative thinking is the key to the future of agriculture in West Virginia, according to Leonhardt.
“We lost many small farms when people left the state as mining and manufacturing jobs became scarce,” he said. “Today, consumers are more interested in local goods and, if they are willing to pay more for West Virginia foods, farmers are willing to look at new ways to feed their neighbors. There is a balance between our old ways and ushering in new ways that I believe will work for West Virginia.”
For more information about Turnrow Appalachian Farm Collective, go to turnrow.localfoodmarketplace.com.