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Appalachian farmers growing local economies

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- There is a food paradigm shift underway in Appalachia.

Food producers and consumers are seeing that shift toward local farm products, and local communities should be ready to take advantage of it, panelists at the Appalachian Regional Commission Conference said Thursday in Charleston.

"We're seeing a lot of exciting stuff happening in West Virginia," said Savanna Lyons of Oak Hill's West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition. "Consumer demand is blossoming in the state."

West Virginia had only 35 farmers markets in 2005, and now it has 83, Lyons said. In the past few years, the state has seen an increase in demand for farm-to-table products from institutions such as schools and hospitals, she said.

"There is a lot of room for growth," Lyons said. "What we are lacking is production, not growth."

One of the biggest challenges for West Virginia in developing a network connecting farmers and consumers, Lyons said, is making sure farmers know the demand is there.

"Folks who have been farming here a while are still learning the way consumer demand is changing," she said. "They are learning they can make money off of niche products like grass-fed meat and organically raised produce."

Lyons said food is a common denominator and people want access to healthy local food. It's a slow process connecting people with land and capital though, she added.

Across the border, in Kentucky, Alexa Arnold, an organizer with the Community Farm Alliance in Frankfort, has been working on connecting local farmers with consumers.

The Community Farm Alliance talked with individual farmers about what their needs were, Arnold said: How could they make a living farming while keeping money local?

"For a local food economy to survive," Arnold said, "you have to think regionally."

The Community Farm Alliance focused on creating a space for locals to do business. The Floyd County (Ky.) Farmers Market had three local producers in 2011, with $1,100 in sales. In 2012, the market grew to seven producers with sales totaling $22,725. This year, the market featured 12 producers, with $50,000 in sales.

Arnold said it's about finding what works best for each community and gathering community support.

Scott Parker, the principal planner for Greenville County, S.C., said he spends a lot of time on farms.

"I am from the government and I'm here to help," is what Parker said he tells the farmers he visits.

Parker, under the county's Planning and Code Enforcement Division, is helping create a food hub with 200 farmers within a 100-mile radius.

"Some of our biggest activities [as county planners] are economics and jobs," Parker said. "Farming has a huge impact in different sectors."

Parker said he hopes Greenville not only will have local institutions, such as schools and hospitals, purchasing local farm products but that they also will export local products in the future.

"If you have fresh produce growing in your back yard, that's a beautiful thing," Parker said.

He added that Greenville actually re-zoned to allow for more agricultural activity.

In Athens, Ohio, Leslie Schaller has spent the past 20 years developing a local farm-to-table-market.

"I think we can all get excited," Schaller said, "even if we're just eaters of local food."

Schaller echoed the challenge of finding capital but emphasized learning and collaboration among regional farmers.

"It's really the entrepreneurs making our economy work," she said.

Working with the Appalachian Center for Economic Networks, Schaller said Athens enjoys a $1.5 million shared-food-venture center. More than 300 businesses are incubated there, using resources such as kitchen space and a thermal processing room for bottled products.

Schaller said businesses are exporting products to six countries and that more and more products are emerging.

"How do we create rural wealth that sticks?" Schaller asked. "It's really about creating a sustainable livelihood."

Reach Caitlin Cook at caitlin.cook@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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