The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

December 11, 2013

Local foods initiatives could mean new businesses for state

By Pamela Pritt
Register-Herald Reporter

CHARLESTON — Small family farms could mean economic development expansion for the state, and bringing farmers to the table to talk about the business of agriculture is one step in turning an old vocation into a new economic engine.

Jill Young from the Value Chain Cluster Initiative and Steve Weir from the Greenbrier Valley Economic Development Corporation told Agriculture and Rural Development Committee members Tuesday that state leaders should treat agriculture businesses as they would any other enterprise and begin to help increase markets and profits.

Young said the VC2 is an accelerator grant that will put more money into farmers’ hands and back into family farms through grant-funded low-cost loans. The initiative has completed six of 38 requests for assistance in farm businesses preparing for loans, she said.

She acknowledged that the return rate is slow so far, but said part-time staff in 17 counties has been working with farmers one-on-one to assess needs and helping find resources to meet those needs with available resources.

VC2 has created seven trainings, and a quick recap shows that 13 jobs have been created, 49 jobs retained and $325,000 in loans has be leveraged for $710,000 in private investments, Young noted.

“All of us love farming,” she said. “We’re not all that great at the business end of it.”

Farmers often get stuck in preparing for expansion because of regulations and financials, she continued.

“We help them step up to connect to loans and to other markets,” she said, and in doing so help farmers expand their resources, bringing income back to their farms.

Young said the initiative also integrates help from various state agencies in order to help farmers use business resources.

The grant is funded by the USDA, the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Economic Development Administration. Funding from those agencies will end in 2015, she said.

Weir’s agency, the GVEDC, was one of five sponsors of the VC2 grant, he said, and his agency has been happy with the results.

“There is a need to do a lot of coordinating in terms of getting resources in the right spots at the right times in order to make a difference,” he said. “VC2 shows a lot of promise in how it networks. The program works very well.”

The local foods movement in the Greenbrier Valley began about four years ago, Weir said, but a primary condition for the GVEDC to be involved was to treat agriculture businesses the same as manufacturing, retail or services. The GVEDC applied resources to evaluate business practices whether it was a small farm or a group of producers, and then helped determine how to increase profitability and markets.

“Agriculture is giving us new opportunities we didn’t have before,” Weir said. “That needs to be supported; that needs to be enhanced.”

State farms should be focusing on markets not currently tapped, Weir said, and how to get products to urban markets like Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Washington.

Weir said that “new age sharecropping” where young people who want to farm would partner with landowners who didn’t use their land, and leasing high tunnels on reclaimed strip mines are just two possibilities for the state’s future in agriculture. Those initiatives could also help put healthier food into state schools and communities, Weir said.

“We have to push and keep pushing,” he said. “A lot of communities are ahead of us, but that means we have good examples to follow.”

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