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Dearth of produce farmers hampers W.Va.'s farm-to-school effort

Yaqoob Malik is in Charleston as part of a U.S.-Pakistan partnership program arranged by the International Center for Journalists, in Washington, D.C.

 ST. ALBANS, W.Va. -- There is still not enough local produce to meet the demands of West Virginia's schools, despite recent gains made in promoting farm-to-school programs.

That's because there are fewer farms than there used to be and those farms are producing cattle more often than they're growing produce, said Tom McConnell, director of the West Virginia University Small Farm Center.

McConnell, who has been in the farming business for 50 years, said there are nearly 23,000 farms in the state.

"Obviously, there is a big demand for locally grown products in the market, especially from the schools," he said, "but we don't have enough produce, unfortunately, to fulfill the demand."

McConnell attended Wednesday's farm-to-table event at McKinley Middle School in St. Albans, promoting local foods in Kanawha County schools.

Buddy Davidson, a spokesman for the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, agreed.

"We don't have the fresh fruit and vegetable production," Davidson said. "One report that I read said that 0.5 percent of the land used for farming [in West Virginia] is used for fruits and vegetables."

Cattle farming is turning a bigger profit these days, McConnell said, which is leading farmers to convert from crops.

"As it is now, about 65 percent of the farms are associated with cattle farming," McConnell said.

West Virginia school systems spend about $100 million each year feeding students, according to the Agriculture Department. Last year, about $350,000 of that was spent on local products, a huge improvement over years past, but still a very small percentage.

As Wednesday's farm-to-school event showed, schools, parents and children are keen on the idea of locally raised food. However, because of the lack of availability, children are still faced largely with a diet of packaged foods shipped from other areas.

Because the state produces nearly $500 million in agricultural goods each year, sales to school systems could represent a major windfall for farmers, the department noted.

"We want to bring those farmers along and get them to produce what is needed by county school systems and try to basically coordinate the supply and the demand," Davidson said. "So we can have farmers producing what the schools need when the schools need it."

While the demand for healthy local food abounds, meaning new business opportunities along with it, the number of farmers is declining in West Virginia.

Davidson said the department has been giving out specialty-crop grants for several years. Farmers can use those to build things like greenhouses and high tunnels -- basically an unheated greenhouse -- to expand the growing season.

"They're not really production grants, but more along the lines of research grants," Davidson said. "We want to encourage projects that people can share what they've learned once they're done with it."

McKinley Principal Amy Scott said during Wednesday's event that she hopes local food will someday be regularly available to students, rather than a once- or twice-a-month occasion.

Davidson credited the Department of Education and local officials for the progress the farm-to-school movement has made in recent years.

"Anything in farm-to-school is a local initiative because the purchasing decisions in these school systems are made by the local food director," he said. "They can choose to go with the Syscos and the U.S. Foods of the world, or they can use locally grown stuff." 

Reach David Gutman or Yaqoob Malik at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.


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