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Farmers co-op comes to its customers

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- They're lawyers and yoga instructors. Busy young parents and retirees. They show up in professional clothes or jogging shorts when they pull into two Charleston church parking lots on Thursday evenings, but they share a common interest. They have a passion for locally grown vegetables and fruits, meats, eggs, baked goods and herbs, which they order from Monroe Farm Market, a farming co-op based in Monroe County.

The co-op was formed in 2005 as a means for farmers in Monroe and neighboring counties to get their products to market. Today, the co-op offers food and products produced by 25 farmers in Monroe and nearby counties.

Every Sunday at 8 p.m., customers, about 470 currently, receive a weekly email listing seasonal fruits and vegetables, beef, chicken, lamb, pork, eggs, baked goods and crafted items. Orders for Thursday delivery may be placed through noon on Tuesday and are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.

Savvy shoppers get their orders in early or risk seeing the dreaded "Available: 0" notation by the desired item. "I watch when the first orders are posted on Sunday. Within 15 minutes, all my asparagus is gone," said Tommye Lou Rafes, of T.L. Fruits and Vegetables. Asparagus, blueberries and peaches are big sellers for Rafes, as are fennel and young tender spicy mustard greens. "I couldn't grow them fast enough," she said.

The farmers harvest, pack and label the orders, then take them to the local senior center, where they load chilled items into coolers and sort the rest of the orders in boxes by customers' names. A driver runs the orders to two Charleston delivery sites on Thursdays. Customers pick up their orders from 4 to 6 p.m. at Unity of Kanawha Valley Church, in South Hills, or Unitarian Universalist Church, 520 Kanawha Blvd.

Shannon Vollmer stopped by last week to pick up an order for her young family. "We order very single week. We get fresh free-range eggs, grass-fed beef, vegetables. They have all sorts of great things," she said. "I love that they're so reliable. Every single thing I've ordered has been wonderful."

The Vollmers joined Monroe Farm Market two years ago after her husband heard about it from friends at the gym.

Vollmer said the prices are comparable to what she pays for organic produce, free-range eggs and grass-fed beef at the grocery store. "Organic is a high priority for me, and I like that I'm buying from West Virginia farmers," she said.

The majority of the farmers do not use herbicides, pesticides or any chemical application. Their products are designated "chemical free" on the website. Jennifer "Tootie" Jones, of the historic Swift Level estate, offers grass-fed beef. She explained that her cattle feed on grass only from the farm's pastures year-round, supplemented in winter with hay from her fields, which have received no chemical applications in 19 years. Her methods contrast with many commercial producers of grass-fed beef who "finish" the cattle on grain for the last part of their lives to fatten them up.

Becky McCormick greets customers by name as they pick up their orders in South Hills. McCormick works in Charleston, but her father, Dirk McCormick, owns Byrnside Branch Farm, in Union. He sends her a care box with each delivery. Last week's was a salsa box, loaded with tomatoes and peppers.

Susan Conner heard about the market at a presentation at her garden club. She signed up on the spot. Yearly membership for Charleston delivery is $80, which covers delivery and market operating costs.

"I love the produce," Conner said as she picked up cousa squash, a variety she said she hadn't seen since her childhood. "I know it hasn't been in a refrigerated warehouse for two weeks, then on a truck for a week. This was picked yesterday." McCormick confirmed that it had been. Her husband, Cloyd, who accompanied her to pick up their order, said he appreciates the quality of the meats, especially the pork which he said isn't injected with saline.

"The eggs are wonderful. The yolks are orange," she said. "There's no comparison."

Customers confessed that they sometimes forget what they ordered.

"It's like Christmas when I open the box and see what's in there," said Deb Mattingly as she picked up vegetables and eggs. "I appreciate eating what's in season, but then I'm sad when it's gone."

Although Jen Wagner and her husband eat a largely vegetarian diet, it was the quality and taste of the grass-fed beef and smoked trout that first attracted them to the market. They eat so little meat they want it to be special, said Wagner as she filled her reusable bags with her weekly supply of produce.

Kathleen DuBois joined the market six months ago partially because she wanted to eat a more healthful diet. As she peruses the list each week, she finds herself ordering produce she wouldn't normally order, such as the rhubarb she used to make pie and jam.

She made Asian slaw, zucchini bread and salsa with the contents of a recent order.

Their customers' enthusiasm fuels the market's growth and the variety of products grown, said manager Jennifer Frye. As the number of customers grows, more producers are using high tunnels to extend their growing season into cold weather to meet the demand. High tunnels are structures made of retractable plastic stretched over metal arches to create a protected growing environment. They resemble greenhouses but do not require heaters.

Frye accepted her position in January and has been impressed with the farmers' dedication.

"I realized when I first came here how seriously these producers take the issue of quality. If it's not right, if it's not something they'd use themselves, they pull it and won't send it," Frye said. "Each product is picked by the producer specifically to fill an order. When you're at Walmart, you have no idea who picked that squash for you."

Johnny Spangler owns Spangler's Greenhouse and Farm, one of the market's biggest suppliers. His micro greens appear on dishes in Charleston establishments such as Bluegrass Kitchen, Bridge Road Bistro and Mission Savvy. The Greenbrier is a big customer of the greens he grows nine months out of the year in four high tunnels.

Today, he produces mostly specialty greens and micro greens on his family-owned farm, but he grew other crops when he founded Monroe Farm Market in 2005 with three other farmers.

Like his neighbors, his Greenbrier County farm wasn't near any large markets. "Around here, the cows outnumber people 5 to 1. Most folks grow their own produce. We had no customer base. I needed to support my children," he said.

He'd tried selling his produce in farmers markets, but couldn't afford the time it took to travel to a market and man a booth. He established a 100-member Community Supported Agriculture in which customers paid a set fee and got weekly boxes of whatever produce was available, but customers tired of receiving produce they couldn't use.

"One person would say, 'Don't give me any more beets,' while someone else said she hoped those beets kept coming," he said. "I realized that evolving technology would allow customers to get online and order just what they wanted."

"Today, we can pretty much fill a grocery order. It's really evolved. The quality and variety we're able to put out there is so much better," Spangler said.

The convenience and efficiency of online ordering was especially attractive to Rafes, who joined the market this year to sell vegetables, peaches and blueberries she grows on her small, remote farm near Organ Cave. When sales close on Tuesday, she knows exactly how much she needs to harvest and package for Thursday delivery.

"I'm a one-man show. I do all the work myself. I couldn't give up a day to sit at a farmers market, hoping that someone would buy," Rafes said. "I probably wouldn't be able to do this without the market."

Jones was invited to bring her farm's grass-fed, hormone-free beef to the market four years ago. An enthusiastic promoter of locally grown foods, Jones said Swift Level beef fit well with the market's mission to produce and sell foods locally and keep profits in the area of origin.

"Last year, the market farmers made more than $100,000. The market allowed that money to stay where it was made. It didn't leave West Virginia. And that's a good thing," Jones said.

Jones butchers about four steers a month and always sells out. She sells just about all the steer, from the tail to the cheek. Swift Level sells lots of ground beef as well as other cuts to market customers, while restaurants like the prime cuts. In Charleston, both Bridge Road Bistro and Lola's are regular customers, as is Stardust Café, in Lewisburg.

Monroe Farm Market offers producers a means to market and to distribute their products to a wider audience, she said. As the customer base increases, farmers will increase production of in-demand items and perhaps earn a reasonable living.

"We're hearing from our farmers who want to be full-time farmers. The market can assist them in doing that," Jones said.

Monroe Farm Market offers equal benefits to established farms like Swift Level as it does to Zenith Springs Farm, where owner Jill Young produces lettuces, garlic, shallots, onions and shiitake mushrooms on three acres. Young's day job as Greenbrier County Local Foods Initiative coordinator wouldn't allow her time to market and to sell her produce on her own.

"It's going well. We've increased our sales with Monroe Farm Market. I coordinate with other farmers and grow specialty crops that other producers aren't growing," Young said. She grows peppers for her own use, but doesn't sell them in the market because other producers provide an adequate supply.

Customers seem to appreciate the attention Young and other producers give to providing an interesting variety of locally produced foods, which Frye said makes her job as manager easier. Prospective customers may sign up for two weeks of orders without paying the $80 membership fee.

"How do I attract customers? I just tell them they can sign up for two free trial deliveries and try it and see for themselves," she said. "Until you hold them and eat them yourself, you don't know what they're like."

For more information on Monroe Farm Market, visit www.monroefarmmarket.com, email contact@monroefarmmarket.com or call 304-646-8766.

Reach Julie Robinson at julier@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.


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