Mary Oldham, MS, ’13, Agricultural and Resources Economics, and Francisco “Chico” Ramirez, co-owners of Mountain Harvest Farm, have packed their cash wrap with carrots, zucchini, green bell peppers, kale, beets, lettuce, tomatoes and cabbage.
As a musician sings Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Wagon Wheel,” Oldham and Ramirez’s customers grab bunches of carrots and other vegetables as the couple tallies the totals and quote prices for their produce.
Oldham, a Morgantown native and former Peace Corps volunteer, has been operating the farm with her husband for six years, renting land on an old U-pick strawberry farm, eight miles from downtown Morgantown. During their first year in business they had a quarter-acre garden, which they have now expanded to five acres.
“Do you have any green beans?” one customer asked. Oldham explains that there has been too much rain and their green beans have not been growing well. The customer smiles and picks up another vegetable.
“The farmers market is really nice for farmers because you don’t really have to promise anything,” Oldham said. “You just show up with what you were able to produce.”
Mary Oldham at Mountain Harvest Farm
We rely on food to be there when we need it. But for a lot of people it isn’t, or it’s not the healthy kind of food. One solution those who study the issue are banking on is to grow local farm networks so that farmers are producing food for their neighbors and feeding into the regional supply chain. That’s happening in West Virginia, and alumni and faculty are in the thick of it.
The region struggles with poverty and access to quality healthy food. According to the nonprofit Feeding America, in West Virginia one in seven people are struggling with hunger. In 2016, the state had a food insecurity rate of 14.6 percent, which was above the national average of 12.9 percent. There where nearly 268,000 food insecure people in West Virginia, which includes 76,000 children. This picture is all too common across the country. Three-quarters of the counties that face the highest rates of food insecurity are in rural areas.
The combination of income, transportation and quality and quantity of retailers create barriers to accessing food, creating food deserts. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a food desert is a community with at least 500 people and/or 33 percent of the population living more than one mile from a grocery store.
There is nothing natural about food deserts, says Bradley Wilson, assistant professor of geography and director of the Food Justice Lab at West Virginia University. He argues that food deserts are man-made problems that are going to take innovative and creative man-made solutions to solve.
“In the U.S. and in West Virginia, we are looking at a really large percentage of the population – like 20 percent of the population – who not only can’t afford to necessarily purchase healthy foods, but are in such a situation of poverty that it makes it difficult to afford foods at all in significant quantities,” Wilson said. “We have to find ways of addressing the needs of consumers to have sufficient income to be able to afford foods that often cost more to produce and we need viable options to produce those foods in the places that are close to where those consumers are.”
The WVU Food Justice Lab’s goals are to improve access to healthy foods by providing training, provoke community conversations and develop collective strategies to address food equality issues. They have developed a website called WV FOODLINK, which offers help with finding food sources, county-scale food security profiles, research, planning tools and a geographic learning system to educate people of the challenges of food access in West Virginia.
Some outgrowths of community agriculture are already a fixture in the region. Oldham’s Mountain Harvest farm sells to farmers markets, community-supported agriculture – known as CSAs – and a few restaurants.
CSAs are a large share of Mountain Harvest Farm’s business. CSAs are subscription programs in which customers pay upfront before the growing season for a weekly box of produce. In this way the customer shares some of the risk inherent in farming with the producer. For example, if growing conditions are not ideal in a given year the CSA member accepts the risk that their share may not contain certain vegetables.
“Our customers sign up early in the year, like in January and February, and then that provides us some initial capital to be able to buy seeds, all our supplies and start growing the food,” Oldham said. “[It’s] a really nice relationship between the farmer and the consumer because you are investing in each other. I think that’s what differentiates a strong sustainable local food economy.”
Farms can also work with nonprofits to address problems of poverty. One way that Mountain Harvest Farm is contributing to solving the food-access problem is by working in partnership with Conscious Harvest Co-op and the Shack Neighborhood House to provide discounted CSA shares to the Shack’s clients.
With the solutions sometimes come challenges. While farmers markets have been a good driver of community unity and a boom to small scale producers, they suffer from a perceived problem of access.
Some people believe farmers markets are an exclusive, expensive experience and that you have to be in a higher income bracket to participate in the local food economy. Oldham thinks differently.
“We actually found that sometimes it’s not more expensive,” Oldham said. “If people look at what they spend for like a pepper over the course of the year and fluctuations in price, I think they might find the average is about the same because there are times at the supermarket I would be paying $3 for a pepper that I might pay $1 for in the summer. Whereas at the farmer’s market I might be paying $2. So I think that is a myth in some ways.”
The profit margins are low for garden market farmers. The farmers are constrained mostly by the number of farmers markets they can attend each week and the number of customers they can attract at these markets and to their CSA programs.
“In West Virginia, local growers are increasingly facing great competition amongst their own kind within their own communities. The customer group that’s buying the produce in local places isn’t getting any bigger,” Wilson said.
One idea for opening new markets for local food has been regional food hubs. Food hubs act as farm aggregators that bundle small farm products to sell to regional food distributors, who then sell to grocery stores and restaurants.
“Without them it would be really difficult, for example for us, for a very small farm like ours to be able to establish a relationship with a supermarket, because we just won’t have the consistency of the volume of production,” Oldham said. “But if we can get five farms our size that does start to make a difference.”
Morning fog hugs the tips of the mountains surrounding Sprouting Farms just outside Talcott, W.Va. Fritz Boettner, ’02, MS, Environmental Management, Sprouting Farms project director, walks down a narrow walkway that is surrounded by high tunnels: metal semicircular frames wrapped in plastic sheeting. He is wearing a blue plaid shirt, blue jeans and a tan ball cap with a gold West Virginia state emblem stitched to the front.
Inside the high tunnels, workers squeeze between rows of basil, tomatoes and green peppers harvesting produce that will be sold wholesale to a local food distributor.
“In West Virginia I don’t believe you can actually make it happen, particularly in produce, unless you figure out how to get to more people regionally that are interested in buying your produce,” said Boettner, who also serves as the Food System director for the WVU Food Justice Lab. “How do you get it there? It sounds like a simple question but it hasn’t been solved yet. That’s what we’re working on.”
Fritz Boettner at Sprouting Farms
Sprouting Farms, which opened in 2017, is located on a former wholesale nursery. The farm grows produce for wholesale markets, regional farmers markets, CSAs and online retail sales. It also manages a large food hub that sells to markets regionally from Blacksburg, Va., to Huntington, W.Va. Sprouting Farms offers hands-on training in the form of apprenticeships and runs a farm incubator program that offers high tunnels and land for lease for a nominal fee.
“No one county can feed everybody. No one county can afford to feed everybody from local products. For farmers to make money, then they have to move products elsewhere, which means you need to collaborate with other people,” said Spencer Moss, ’15, MPA, Public Administration, executive director of the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition.
“Cities consume more product than they can produce around them locally, by and large. There is a market out there to move product to other places like Pittsburgh and Baltimore and D.C. And so in terms of these food sheds, there is real potential for an aggregation system to be put in place.”
The nearly 2-year-old Sprouting Farms is very much a work in progress. The farm currently has 13 greenhouses in production and eight acres of garden space in which sections are certified organic. There are another 16 high tunnels not in use. Boettner says this is all a part of an experiment to figure out what combination of production will get them up to the scale to sell at wholesale. Once they figure out the proper formula they plan to share the knowledge by training new farmers.
Boettner believes that the future of local food in West Virginia will be based on developing new markets for local farms outside of the garden market ecosystem. But, he says they cannot even begin to move in that direction until there are more small farmers and more farms growing at a larger scale. Larger corporate distributors expect quantity and quality levels of produce to be consistent.
“My dream would be that West Virginia lettuce is on West Virginia grocery stores shelves, where that’s a very rare instance,” Boettner said.
Reimagining the local food economy in a way that reconnects local people to agricultural production so that locally produced vegetables will become a common sight on food retailers’ shelves will take a cohesive effort. Wilson argues that encouraging people to work outside of traditional geographic and social relationships is the key to short-term growth and long-term sustainability.
“At a fundamental level we can’t forget that food systems are ultimately made up of people, and people are complicated,” Wilson said. “Solidarities are developed through time, through bonds between people, through relationships of trust, of mutual obligation to one another. It’s about showing up and committing to something over the long term. I think those are the feelings that are necessary to get us out of localism and get into regionalism or even to get beyond that to a sense of globalism that we are all in this together to try to create some sort of change in food systems.”