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New West Virginia Study Reveals Opportunities for Processing and Distributing Local Food

In the past few years, West Virginia has seen immense growth in the “farm-to-table” movement. The state’s rapidly increasing number of farmers markets, now 93 in total, has helped numerous small farms. However, if the goal is to build local economies and create jobs by substituting more of the state’s $8.9 billion food consumption with food produced in West Virginia, then farmers markets will not be enough. Local products will need to travel to eaters through a much wider variety of avenues, including restaurants, cafeterias, and grocery stores.

A new report, “West Virginia Food System: Opportunities and Constraints in Local Food Supply Chains” looks at what it will take to move more food from farmer to consumer through these channels. Specifically, it looks at the links in the supply chain through which food typically travels to the consumer—from washing and processing to packing and distribution—and investigates whether these links are available to farmers throughout the state. It also looks at barriers that keep farmers from selling to a wider range of buyers, including regulatory issues and insufficient quantity, and shows how these are being overcome. The report was completed by Downstream Strategies, LLC and commissioned by the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition, with funding from blue moon fund and the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation.

To show the extent of the opportunity for farmers, the report profiles what large food buyers such as schools and hospitals are looking for, revealing farm-to-table successes as well as untapped opportunities. For example, the Martinsburg VA Medical Center spent nearly $16,000 on local food for its patients in 2011. Meanwhile, the West Virginia Department of Education has earmarked $250,000 to reimburse school systems for purchases of local foods in the 2012 academic year. From April through October 2011, Fayette County Schools purchased roughly 75,000 pounds of produce that could have been produced in West Virginia, but less than $1,700 was spent on local foods despite the fact the County’s Food Service Director is actively trying to buy local foods.

Meeting the needs of larger buyers may be challenging, especially for a small West Virginia farm, but it can be done. The authors found at least five “aggregators” that are collecting products from multiple small farms in order to sell them to larger buyers. They also surveyed food distributors operating in the state, and found thirteen who were interested in purchasing and distributing local foods. To help local farmers find the services needed to process and move their products, the report includes a directory of these businesses as well as community kitchens, food processing co-packers, and slaughterhouses and meat processing facilities.

"We have many customers who really want to buy local produce, and we try to source as much from West Virginia growers as possible. But it is important to have suppliers who can work with us, provide regular deliveries and make us feel comfortable about food safety,” said Bob Corey, owner of Corey Brothers, Inc., which was profiled in the report. “We hope that when people read this report they realize that there is a business not just in producing local food, but also in collecting and distributing it."

Some farms that are too small to satisfy larger buyers like restaurants or cafeterias have begun finding ways to consolidate their products with other farms. For example, farmers from Monroe Farm Market now sell to individuals and restaurants through a shared online ordering platform. Kilmer’s Farm Market, originally an orchard business, buys and distributes local products from farms around the Eastern Panhandle, serving numerous cafeterias. “In talking to people throughout the state while writing this report, what really struck me is the diversity and rapid development of West Viriginia’s local food supply chain participants,” said Cassie Peters, Agriculture and Food Policy Manager of Downstream Strategies.

“We hope policy makers and economic developers will see the immense opportunity here,” said Savanna Lyons, Program Director of the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition, which is an initiative of the West Virginia Community Development Hub. “By supporting farm-to-table efforts, West Virginia can create local jobs not only in farming, but also in food hubs, processing, and distribution. We can do this by investing directly in businesses that deal in local food, but also by using our tax dollars to ‘buy local’ whenever possible, which the school cafeterias are already starting to do. This helps the whole system to grow its infrastructure.”

The report is the second in a series. The first report looked at the economic benefits to be gained if more West Virginians consumed local produce. It found that if West Virginians bought their fruits and vegetables from local farmers during the growing season, about $190 million would stay in the state instead of flowing beyond its borders, and 1,723 new jobs could be created. View both studies and read more at www.wvhub.org/wvffc/research-and-data.

Contact: Savanna Lyons, West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition
(304) 673-0053, s.lyons@wvhub.org