A sustainability tour of West Virginia farms

One of the experiences that has shaped the way I approach my work is a fellowship I participated in a few years ago through the SARE program.

SARE stands for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education and is a program funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help train educators and farmers about sustainable agriculture techniques.

The fellowship, offered to members of the National Association of County Agricultural Agents, consists of four trips to tour farms in different regions of the country. During my fellowship tenure, I visited Kentucky, Iowa, New Mexico and New Hampshire.

I was honored and exited to host the current group of fellows on a tour across Southern West Virginia last week, showcasing our wild and wonderful farms and agricultural businesses, and even some weird and wacky things in the state, to participants from Washington, Texas, Missouri, Minnesota, North Carolina, New York and Maine.

First, when someone hears the term sustainable agriculture, they automatically assume that it means organic or environmentally focused. While environmental stewardship is a part of sustainable agriculture, it is only one area of focus for those who try to educate about the practice. Environmental stewardship is held in balance with economic viability and quality of life.

I can wax on and on about the balance between the three pillars of sustainable agriculture, but I’ll sum it up by saying sustainability is about being able to make the most effective use of resources so a farm can continue well into the future.

For a farm to do that, the farmer has to make good use of his or her environmental resources, be profitable and provide for an acceptable quality of life for his or her family and community.

The thing is, we have an amazing bounty of food and agriculture in this state, you just have to know where to look. Our tour attempted to showcase the best agriculture we have in Southern West Virginia to allow the fellows to assess how they thought the farms stacked up in terms of balancing environment, economics and quality of life.

The tour stretched across the southern part of the state from Huntington to Lewisburg, showcasing interesting operations along the way. Of course, there was great food along the way, too — from Black Sheep Burrito and Brews and Bridge Road Bistro in Charleston, Pies and Pints in Fayetteville, a fairly new restaurant called the Asylum in Lewisburg, and even a lunch at The Greenbrier (followed by a behind-the-scenes landscape tour).

Just to keep our meals in perspective, though, we ate lunch on the last day at the infamous Hillbilly Hot Dogs — something I think left a lasting impression on our guests.

We visited small farms, like Hudson Farms in Kanawha County — which is making a name for itself with community-supported agriculture and on-farm dinners, and West Virginia Homegrown Farms in Hico (just outside of Fayetteville), a newer farm with a cute farm stand.

A farm we visited just outside Lewisburg represents the heart and soul of farmer Pam West, who grows and arranges flowers for weddings and events, all while growing produce for market and raising sheep.

We even visited a brand new hydroponic farm hiding in a building in downtown Charleston that’s so new they haven’t even gone public.

We visited farms that have been in families for generations, like Swift Level beef farm in Greenbrier County, which produces phenomenal grass-fed beef, all while providing a gorgeous backdrop for destination weddings that feature on-farm catering.

And there’s Gritt’s Farm in Putnam County that sells produce and flowers at local markets and has its Fun Farm in the fall, featuring a pumpkin patch, corn mazes, obstacle courses, playgrounds and more.

We sampled spirits from Smooth Ambler distillery, which produces a number of products using grains grown in West Virginia. We showed them the natural beauty of the state, me driving them in a 12-passenger van over the curvy U.S. Route 60, with stops to cross the New River Gorge Bridge and a quick drive-by to wave “hello” at the Mothman in Point Pleasant.

We stopped for “shopportunities” at Tamarack, The Wild Ramp farmers market in Huntington and the Capitol Market — all places where local foods and agricultural products shine.

Perhaps our most surprising stop was at Bob’s Market in Mason, just north of Point Pleasant. Most West Virginians don’t even realize we have a family-owned company that is on the list of the 10 largest greenhouse plant producers in the country.

Last year it produced more than 2.5 million plugs (small plant starts that nurseries buy and transplant into larger pots to grow) and finished transplants using an impressive array of automated and robotic equipment.

While we were there, its pansy crop was in full swing. While most of its business ships out for wholesale markets, you can stop by its retail space across the street and buy excess plants.

After a full three days of touring with several hundred miles on the road, we finished with a private farm-to-table dinner at J.Q. Dickinson Saltworks in Malden. After a quick tour and history lesson, the fellows sat down to dinner prepared by renowned chef/farmer Dale Hawkins.

We have such an interesting agriculture community full of historic and innovative new farming ventures. I challenge everyone to take advantage of this community and support our local agriculture scene.

Our farming scene is more vibrant than ever as we approach an agricultural revival. So get out and visit those farms, buy local products and share our farm story.

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