For The Fayette Tribune
“There has never been a better time to go into farming,” said Paul Mock, a well-established hydroponic farmer in Morgan County, in a speech at the 2012 WV Small Farm Conference. Though it may be surprising news at a time when America is losing farmers nationwide, more and more West Virginia farmers — and agricultural experts — are starting to say the same thing.
Demand for local food in West Virginia has grown rapidly over the past few years, and the rush to meet that demand has opened up a myriad of new business opportunities, as well as chance to improve access to healthy food for our communities.
In response to these growing opportunities, the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition is pleased to release West Virginia’s Road Map for the Food Economy, a statewide “food charter” designed to help focus, measure and celebrate West Virginia’s progress towards stronger local food systems. Created through a series of public forums, the Road Map provides an action plan for seizing key opportunities in West Virginia’s food and farm economy. Its action items address both policy and practice, and include things that can be done by ordinary individuals and community groups as well as agencies and the state legislature.
Partners in organizing the forums and developing the Road Map included the West Virginia University Extension Service and its WV Small Farm Center, the Office of Child Nutrition and Office of Career and Technical Instruction at the West Virginia Department of Education, the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, West Virginia State University and the West Virginia Community Development Hub.
To understand the current “state of the state” of local food and how well the local food economy is actually performing, the Road Map also includes a “Food Economy Score Card” on the state of West Virginia’s food and agriculture economy. In the coming years, the Score Card will be updated annually to show progress.
Organizations, businesses and government entities are invited to “sign on” to the Road Map, committing to further its actions and goals, at www.wvhub.org/wvffc/west-virginia-food-charter.
As a companion to the Road Map, the WV Food and Farm Coalition also released a report, “West Virginia Food System: Opportunities and Constraints in Local Food Supply Chains.” This looks at the links in the supply chain through which food typically travels to the consumer — from washing and processing to packing and distribution — and investigates what needs to happen for more farmers to make these connections. It includes a directory of West Virginia businesses that offer processing and distribution services for farmers.
The report was developed by Downstream Strategies, LLC, and the WV Food & Farm Coalition, with assistance from WVU faculty and its Extension Service.
The report reveals recent farm-to-table successes as well as untapped opportunities. The authors found at least five West Virginia “aggregators,” who collect products from multiple farms to sell them to larger buyers, and 13 food distributors interested in purchasing and distributing local foods.
It also profiles large buyers actively seeking local food. These include the Martinsburg VA Medical Center, which spent nearly $16,000 on local food for its patients in 2011, and the West Virginia Department of Education, which earmarked $250,000 to reimburse school systems for local food purchases in the 2012 academic year. The report includes a directory for farmers which lists the local food aggregators, processors and distributors identified in the report.
Tom McConnell of the WV Small Farm Center at WVU Extension Service, a key partner in the forums that led to the Road Map, sees today as a critical time for West Virginia agriculture.
“I’ve worked with and for farmers for 40 years. I’m a farmer myself. And I’ve never, ever been more excited about the future of agriculture. There’s never been more technology to make us successful. We can capture way more of the local demand than we’ve ever dreamed possible,” he said.
“We hope the Road Map for the Food Economy will guide policy makers in how they support West Virginia food and agriculture, and that the new report will help them see the huge untapped economic development opportunity,” said Savanna Lyons, program director of the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition.
“By supporting farm-to-table efforts, West Virginia can create local jobs not only in farming, but also in processing, and distribution. We can do this by investing directly in businesses that deal in local food, but also by using our tax dollars to buy locally whenever possible, which the school cafeterias are already starting to do. This helps the whole system grow its infrastructure and create local jobs.”
Readers can read the Road Map and download the new report at www.wvhub.org/wvffc. The West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition, based in Beckley, is an initiative of the West Virginia Community Development Hub. Sponsors and donors for the Road Map for the Food Economy include the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation; blue moon fund; the West Virginia Office of Healthy Lifestyles; Downstream Strategies, LLC; Change the Future WV; BB&T; and the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design.