The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

December 16, 2012

Program can help farming businesses

By C.V. Moore
Register-Herald Reporter

OAK HILL —

Across the state, small farmers like Chad Smith of West Virginia Homegrown Farms in Fayette County are looking for ways to make their businesses work so they can spend more time doing what they love to do. A new assistance program for local farmers aims to help them achieve that goal through business planning, coaching, and education.

“The real focus is, how do we grow existing agribusinesses to help them take it to the next level?” says Marten Jenkins, president of Natural Capital Investment Fund, which is managing the West Virginia Value Chain Cluster Initiative.

Smith owns a greenhouse in Hico, where every week for $10 he fills handmade wooden baskets with homegrown vegetables for local residents. He started the season with seven customers; by the end of the summer he had 180. He also sells produce to local restaurants and the Fayette County Board of Education.

At the same time, he holds down a full-time job at a local rafting resort. Ultimately, he’d like to spend his days farming. But taking the leap into self-employment is risky.

“There’s going to come a time when I’m going to have to make that tough decision, and the stars will have to align perfectly for me to be able to take that risk,” he said.

That’s where a program like the West Virginia Value Chain Cluster Initiative could come into play.

Funding from a federal Rural Jobs Accelerator Challenge Grant will allow NCIF to offer local farmers in 17 counties services like business coaching, training, consulting and marketing help.

“The biggest challenges we’ve seen for small farm businesses isn’t on the production side — we have a very good extension service to work with farmers on growing new crops — but it’s the business plan, the marketing piece,” said Jenkins.

For Smith, a carefully designed business plan could supply him with enough confidence to farm full time. Or it could hook him up with training in hydroponic growing techniques, one of his interests.

For other farmers, the assistance could translate into adding new products, diversifying, starting a slaughter house, or learning ways to aggregate and distribute produce.

Fayette County has a Small Business Development Center that provides planning services to local entrepreneurs, but their expertise isn’t necessarily in agriculture. The county also has an extension service that helps farmers on the production end of the business. NCIF says it is managing the grant in partnership with these kinds of local organizations, to fill any gaps that might exist.

“We’re not trying to replace services that already exist, but we’re trying to help farmers think outside the box and bring in additional expertise,” said Savanna Lyons, director of the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition, which recently relocated its offices to Oak Hill.

“Say for example you’re a produce farmer and you’re trying to figure out how to create a really great brand to sell your products online. The technical assistance money can pay for you to access online marketplaces, develop a brand and a marketing plan.

“So it could really expand your business in a pretty serious way and get people over that hump that’s been keeping them from exploring ideas.”

Lyons also hopes that the program will make it safer for local farmers to try new things, innovate and experiment with less conventional business strategies.

“Not only can people build their business, but they can try on new models that could become models for other parts of the state,” she said.

Natural Capital Investment Fund is a small business loan fund based in Shepherdstown that provides financing in the natural resources based sector, anything from outdoor tourism to forest products to renewable energy. On the agriculture side of things, NCIF has financed the launch of an organic dairy farm in North Carolina and helped another farmer there build an affordable grain storage bin.

Jenkins says the organization is also working with a farmer in Mineral County who wants to transition from state to federal inspection of a processing facility. NCIF helped the farmer develop a new marketing plan to harvest out-of-state customers, undertake financial planning and negotiate federal permitting requirements.

The West Virginia Value Chain Cluster Initiative is a three-year program funded by a multi-agency grant given to 13 proposals nationwide. The grant targets rural counties that meet economic distress criteria.

The 17 counties served are Fayette, Greenbrier, Pocahontas, Monroe, Calhoun, Clay, Roane, Wirt, Barbour, Preston, Randolph, Tucker, Upshur, Doddridge, Tyler, Ritchie and Gilmer.

“Our hope is that we can demonstrate that bringing more business assistance to the agriculture sector will allow for accelerated development and that the Department of Agriculture will adopt the program and roll it out statewide,” says Jenkins.

NCIF is currently hiring two part-time regional coordinators, two part-time business coaches, and one full-time technical assistance coordinator to implement the program.

A technical advisory committee of partner agencies includes the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, the Office of Child Nutrition and the Office of Career and Technical Instruction at the West Virginia Department of Education, the West Virginia Small Farm Center at West Virginia University Extension Service, and others.

Almost $1 million in matching funds and services is being provided by the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, the West Virginia Community Development Hub, the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition, the Collaborative for a 21st Century Appalachia, the West Virginia University College of Law, Greenbrier Valley Economic Development Corporation, and the New Appalachian Farm and Research Center.

“Because this investment is being made in Fayette County, the county has the potential to be a leader in finding new ways to market local products,” said Lyons.

For more information, contact Marten Jenkins at 304-876-2815, ext. 207, or mjenkins@conservationfund.org.

— E-mail: cmoore@register-herald.com