Monroe County creates first online farmers market with WVU Extension

Monroe Farmer's MarketContributed photo from WVU Today

UNION — The produce is so plentiful in Southeast West Virginia's tiny Monroe County that the old joke that if you leave a car door unlocked, you'll come back to a bag of zucchini on your seat is no joke.

This abundance of fruits, vegetables and meats in the county of 20,000 cattle and 12,000 people meant a physical farmers market as a way for local farmers to sell their goods was a waste of time.

Meanwhile, 133 miles away, in the state capital of Charleston, there were cooks wanting fresh vegetables or to support "eat local" initiatives.

West Virginia University Extension, which often works with small farms and farmers markets around the state as part of its many agricultural programs, was able to help seller connect with buyer by creating an online farmers market, and weekly or bi-weekly delivery service for the new customers.

"We knew if we wanted to survive, that we needed to get the product out of the area. The online market was created out of necessity," said Dan Copeland, who along with his wife, Jennifer, owns Indian Creek Farm and didn't have enough customers to purchase their lamb, peppers and goat's milk soap.

The Monroe Farm Market Cooperative is one example of a 21st Century program that fulfills the vision of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 which established the U.S. Cooperative Extension System, a partnership of the Department of Agriculture, land-grant colleges, and state and local governments.

WVU is celebrating the Act's centennial, and with a two-day symposium, entitled Century Beyond the Campus: Past, Present, and Future of Extension. The symposium highlights not only how WVU has structured modern Extension service, but how Extension extends educational, social and economic benefits of higher education beyond the campus and into communities across the state.

"Community does not always have to be geographically located side-by-side. They can be a community miles apart with common goals and interests," said John Spangler, president of the Monroe Farm Market. "This allowed our farmers to stay on the farm. It allowed them to be with their family, have that connection and keep our way of life the way we like it."

Charleston is home to about 51,000 people - a change from Monroe County, located in the New River-Greenbrier Valley region, with no stoplights and no fast food restaurants.

"There's plenty of market there," said Brian Wickline, WVU Extension agent – Agriculture & Natural Resources for Monroe County. "There are still folks interested in wanting to know who their farmers are; they want to be able to put a name and a face to their products."

The online farm market is a new concept to most in the state, and many farmers were unsure how their product would translate to an online world.

It started out with spreadsheets. A group of Charleston customers who showed interest filled out their meat and produce request on a spreadsheet and e-mailed it back to the market manager, who contacted farmers on what to bring and for whom.

The program quickly evolved into a website where customers can log in, select items the farmers have available and order their groceries for the week. An app for both iPhone and Android phones is now available, as well.

"The Monroe Farm Market worked exactly like an Extension project should," Wickline said. "Extension was very involved early on, and as they became more organized, Extension was able to step back and let the organization run itself."

The Monroe Farm Market created a board of directors to oversee operations.

"When we first started this market in 2006, we had only about four or five producers. At present day, we have 30," Spangler said.

"This co-op is unique because we all work very well together. Everyone is so different, and we don't compete with each other. And because of our cooperation – we have really grown … We used to haul everything in the back of a mini Chevy Blazer. Now, we have enough product to pack a box truck."

Dan Copeland drives all the product from various farmers in Monroe County to two separate locations in Charleston: the West Side and South Hills.

"I've gotten to know all the customers, and I see them week after week – sometimes every other week – but I know them, and they know me," Dan said.

Jennifer Copeland added, "Sometimes he'll come home and say 'So-and-so just loved your beets,' or 'they just bragged about your lettuce,' and it's just an extra sense of accomplishment to grow that and know that somebody's really enjoying it."

The duo, who have been farming all of their lives, raise squash, peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, lamb, pork, beef and poultry, as well as value-added products like jellies, jams and goat's milk soap. The Copelands' two Great Pyrenees dogs guard the acres of land that produce crops they deliver each week.

"You raise it, you put it online by Sunday, then the customers can look at what you have available, and they order what they want, and you can see what you have sold. If you don't sell everything you have available, you can find another use for it – in another product or freeze it," Jennifer said.

"Or we get to eat it that night for dinner!" Dan added.

Because all of the growers are working toward a common goal, Jennifer said there is little competition.

"If one producer is asked to fill an order, and they don't have that – instead of trying to keep that order to themselves, they'll get on the phone and call another producer: 'This customer needs 10 lbs. of cucumbers. Can you fill this order?'" she said.

"Or I had a producer just the other day who had a lot of cabbage, and he knew I canned cabbage for sauerkraut. He had some extra so he told me to come and get it because it would go to waste."

When the Copelands were thinking of lowering their price on lamb, they called the other lamb producers to let them know as a courtesy. That way, they said, nobody has an unfair advantage.

"If that customer likes one product better than that other – that's great. They shop from that producer," Dan said.

"The market is a big family – the growers, the customers – it's everyone working together and cooperating," Jennifer said.

The Copelands, along with the dozens of other farmers from Monroe County, continue to add new products to their farm to help feed the growing customer base and provide a variety of items to best suit their Charleston community.

Spangler said in addition to helping support farmers, the Charleston customers enjoy the online market.

"From a consumer aspect, you're getting food that comes 24 hours from harvest. We have customers all the time say 'we can't believe the shelf life' because when you buy lettuce in the store, it's already a couple weeks old. You get it from us, and you're looking at almost a month shelf life," Spangler said.

"The customer learns about us and starts to know our family, and we build that relationship. They see the impact they have on a farm family's life by the amount of money they spend. If they go to a large store and spend their grocery budget, it doesn't really affect the bottom line of that store. If they get, say, $100 worth of food from a farm family, now that family may have paid their electric bill, they may have got a new piece for the car, they may have gotten their kid a new backpack to go back to school or they may now be able to get their medicine."

Customers can order their groceries online, pick up their box of food, write their check and head home – all while helping farmers make a living.

Sandra Massenburg, 63, of Charleston, has used the Monroe Farm Market for about two years.

"The merchandise is always fresh," she said. "The food is mostly organic, and I like that I can shop almost exclusively through the market with meats, cheese, fruits and vegetables available."

The convenience – and supporting fellow West Virginians – is paramount to Massenburg. She, along with other Charleston customers, shop from the market in an effort to help farmers in the state and contribute to a growing and sustainable farming community.

"We need this Charleston market. We have the product; we just needed people. Without it, I don't know how a farmers market could've continued in Monroe County," Dan said.

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