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Greenbrier Valley's small farms think big

LEWISBURG -- When Jennifer "Tootie" Jones looks out over her 150-acre farm in Lewisburg, she doesn't just see cattle and horses. She sees potential for growth.

"What people are open to [in the region] is looking how they can continue doing something that is their business -- that they love -- and how they can survive doing it. They want to keep doing it and make some money," she said.

Jones, along with other farmers in Greenbrier, Monroe and Pocahontas counties, are pushing to increase local food production as a way to get back to the land and make farming a more primary job in the region.

"Greenbrier Valley Local Food: The Possibilities and Potential," a study by Morgantown environmental consultant Downstream Strategies, highlights the Greenbrier Valley's ability to "significantly gain from a localized food system," by using the regions hilly terrain to grow more crops and graze more livestock, with an emphasis on smaller animals such as lamb, sheep and goats.

Pocahontas, Monroe and Greenbrier counties are home to more than 56,000 people spread across 1.5 million acres. Currently, hay and livestock dominate the agricultural landscape but some regional farmers --who own almost 2,000 farms in the valley -- and community members are looking for ways to diversify the region.

Emphasizing local farming could bring jobs to the region, boost health among residents and "ensure an adequate local food supply of fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and other goods," according to the study.

"The study really shows the big picture and is a really great snapshot of what is possible in the region and in the state as a whole," said Downstream Strategies project manager Laura Hartz.

Although the study covers everything from current demand in fruits and vegetables to examining the current local food markets, Hartz said the study is "just an initial swipe at what is possible. There are so many ways to take it," including in the direction of financial income for the region and the health benefits.

According to the study, there are more than 336,000 acres in the Greenbrier Valley that are suitable for agricultural production without having to cut down any more trees in the area.

"We have a foundation and a place to start on what is really happening with growing foods in this region of the state," said Jones, who runs the 150-acre Swift Level Farm, where she grazes grass-fed cattle.

"This area has grown food for hundreds and hundreds of years, so it's not a new thing. The state of West Virginia used to grow enough food to feed everyone in it with the same population that we have right now," Jones said. "So we're returning to something that is quite familiar, we just have to remember that."

Jones said knowing how many other people may be struggling in farming only strengthens the case to put more focus on the needs of the people growing food.

"Some people want to hear about clean food and where it comes from, but the people that we need to fund those projects need to hear that there is money in it. And there is," Jones said.

A lot of money that is being sent out of state could be spent on a local level, she said.

"It's more than just selling the food to people on a local level. It has to start with making the food on a local level," Jones said -- people owning land, paying taxes, buying seeds and spending dollars in the local community.

But to get to that point, Jones said, the conversation between lawmakers and farmers needs to open up.

"That has been the biggest challenge for those of us producing food for people in West Virginia. It's finding people that are willing to sit down with economic development and seriously listen and help us construct that bridge [between farmer and consumer] so this can happen," Jones said.

In terms of cattle farming, Jones said as much as she would like to keep her money in the state, she can't until the proper infrastructure, including small, "boutique" slaughterhouses are opened.

"We have no infrastructure in this state to support a business that really wants to grow. We have to have slaughter, we have to have processing and we have to have help. Right now in this valley alone, about half of the meat ... is being processed out of state because the state can't handle it," she said.

In addition to better using the landscape for grazing, the study points out that high tunnels -- unheated greenhouses offering protection to plants without using fossil fuels to heat the inside -- could allow farmers could grow berries and other crops during the off seasons.

High tunnels "offer enough protection that you can facilitate growing strawberries in November," said Jill Grace Young of the group Greenbrier Valley Local Foods, which commissioned the study along with the Greenbrier Valley Economic Development Corp.

"You can keep your crops protected from both summer and winter conditions which allows you to produce more, produce a better product and a more consistent product to take to market," Young said. "You can grow any type of crop that you want to protect from the elements."

Before the study was commissioned, the Greenbrier economic development group was already working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand the use of high tunnels in the region.

"We are in the growing phase where more and more are coming into the Greenbrier Valley for all kinds of production," Young said. "They have been around for years but we have a better understanding of them now and a better way to utilize them to meet market demand."

Farmers markets are increasing in popularity across the state -- including the Monroe County Farmers Market, a collective of more than 25 farms that ships its produce to Charleston -- but not where they could be, Young said.

"There is a lot of demand," Jones acknowledges, but "we could grow a lot more food if our growers had more security that that food would be sold."

If residents purchased just half of their fruit and vegetables from local farms instead of shipping goods in from out of state, it would keep more than $6 million in the region, according to the study.

Even though change could be slow, Jones thinks area farmers will be incredibly receptive to changes that could net them a market, and cash.

"I've seen a huge change just in this valley in the past 10 years and I don't think people are averse to that at all. Again, economics really drive it. This valley used to be full of corn grown for cattle and you just don't see that anymore," Jones said.

"We have the labor force. We have the land. And we have the people really willing to do it."

Reach Kathryn Gregory at kathryng@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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