Experts: More produce farms could grow WV economy - Business, Government Legal News from throughout WV

Experts: More produce farms could grow WV economy

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Daniel Eades says he knows from walking through the Morgantown farmers market that there's a demand for fruits and vegetables grown in-state, but he also knows the barriers to entry to that business can be daunting.

A recent study from West Virginia University shows the demand for locally grown fruits and vegetables has increased and the state has the potential to expand and profit from farming.

Crop farming can be a viable business option in the state, and it's an opportunity that could be missed if not invested in and protected, says Eades, WVU Extension Service community economics specialist.

"I'm not sure how many farmers markets there are in the state. I can tell you from experience here in Morgantown, the market opens at 8:30 and if you're not there by 10:30, there's not much," Eades said.

"The investment, that's part of the problem. It's going to require a cultural shift from lawmakers and farmers," Eades said.

For a lot of people who grow fruits and vegetables, farming is a hobby that's done after work. Making a living from farming means running it as a business "and not something you do for fun and recreation," he said.

There are enough people and institutions in the state, such as chefs and school boards, who want to use locally grown fruits and vegetables, Eades said. Once processing, transporting and marketing are taken into account, there is the possibility for profit and jobs in local communities, he said.

On the other hand, the U.S. Department of Agriculture census estimates that only about 20 percent of all farms in the state see annual sales of $10,000 or more.

Many farmers aren't trained as business people, Eades said. They don't keep records of such items as hours worked and input costs. If they had that information, they could go to banks for loans to acquire the capital to convert their farms into full-time businesses, he said.

"Getting people aware that they need to treat it like a business is important," he said.

Although West Virginia traditionally has had many family farms, Eades listed three regions that have a strong agriculture base now and could become stronger for fruit and produce agriculture if the interest and capital are there: the Eastern Panhandle, the Greenbrier Valley and Doddridge County with western Harrison County.

Michael Harman, the Jefferson County WVU extension agent for agriculture and natural resources, says that part of the state has a good agriculture industry that sells into the northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., markets, but landowners and farmers probably could make more if they were to become more involved in vegetable production.

A farmer with several hundred acres of prime farmland can raise cattle and grow grain and have a nice income, Harman said.

"Realistically, they could switch a quarter to a third of their acres (to produce) and make twice as much money. It's a lot of work. They're probably going to stick with what they know," he said.

One barrier to entry for many people in the Panhandle is the high cost of land, "but you don't have to have so many acres to make a  big push in produce crops," Harman said. Five to 10 acres and lots of labor can produce a lot of income, Harman said. Growing produce for metro markets could bring a landowner $30,000 to $40,000 per acre in gross revenue, he said.

Probably the biggest hurdle to more produce-based farming in the Panhandle is that most people with land are not interested in going into the larger markets, Harman said. Also, most people who are interested lack the resources and knowledge they would need, he said.

Some efforts are under way to encourage people to start what Harman called "farmettes" – a home on five to 10 acres where a person can grow specialty crops.

"Down the road, if these sort of farms  continue to grow and develop, at the rate they're going, we might see a produce auction evolve," Harman said.

"If we reach that critical mass of producers, we're placed to become a regional source of produce."

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