Conference looks to grow next generation of farmers

Max Garland, Staff writer

West Virginia won’t realize its full farming potential if the next generation isn’t a part of it.

That’s what Spencer Moss, executive director of the nonprofit West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition, said about the state’s quiet farming economy, at a time when economic diversification is the buzzword among legislators and public figures.

“One of the things we’re seeing is that younger people are one or two generations removed from the farm,” she said. “When they are removed from that life, no one is there to inherit that knowledge or the land.”

The state’s farming industry is shrinking. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of farms in West Virginia dropped from 21,300 in 2014 to 20,900 in 2015. WorkForce West Virginia projects employment in crop and animal production will drop by 5.1 and 19.7 percent, respectively, by 2022.

West Virginia sustaining, and improving, its agriculture sector as its workforce and number of farms continues to decline is one of many issues the farming community will tackle at the annual Small Farm Conference. The three-day conference at the Charleston Civic Center kicks off today, providing a variety of educational events for small-scale farmers and producers to get the most out of their business.

And it’s clear from the schedule that developing the next crop of farmers is a priority for West Virginians in the agriculture business.

Events geared toward the topic include “WV Young & Beginning Farmers Network: Building a Statewide Farming Community,” “Developing and Delivering an Educational Program for Apprenticeship Training,” and “Jump In The Ring: Funding for Emerging Farmers.”

“I always make good connections there, because the other farmers are facing the same problems that you are and you can discuss that,” said Terry Hudson, the owner of Hudson Farms, a sustainable farm using organic production practices in Big Chimney. “And if they’re doing something good, you get to take that back to your own operations and use it.”

Hudson has spent much of his career helping young farmers, providing tips on season extension techniques and advice for obtaining small land plots suited for farming. However, he said there are several obstacles for those looking to jump into the industry, cost being the largest.

“The young folks can’t afford to start their own production, and the older folks that are farming can’t afford to get away from it with how the economy is,” Hudson said.

Having enough funds to start a small farm is just the start. Access to land suited for farming is not a guarantee in mountainous West Virginia. That’s why creative and efficient use of smaller plots of land is a teaching priority for organizations such as the Food and Farm Coalition, Moss said.

Hudson Farms is an example of that creative usage, being in business for more than 17 years despite producing its crops on less than one acre of land. Conference participants will have a chance to see that usage themselves, with Hudson leading two tours of his farm at 3 p.m. and 4:15 p.m. that will meet at Parlor D at the Civic Center.

“We’re doing research here for young farmers to get in the business on small plots of land, because [small farms] are barely scratching their surface in terms of production,” Hudson said.

Although it’s not easy to start a farm even on a small plot of land, West Virginia is one of the better states to do so because land and cost of living are cheap compared to most of the U.S., according to Moss. This draws in people from outside the state with agricultural ambitions.

New farmers, in-state or out-of-state, not only have to work around West Virginia’s limited developable land. Moss said they can encounter distribution difficulties because West Virginia’s rural areas have limited access to the Interstate and road conditions are generally poor.

It may not all be doom and gloom for the future of West Virginia farming. Tom McConnell, program leader of the Small Farm Center at West Virginia University, which is running the conference, said people will always have an affinity for locally grown food. He added that as long as West Virginia producers are on a competitive level with major producers in terms of price and quality, the state’s farming industry won’t be in severe danger.

One place McConnell said could improve for West Virginia farming is the cattle business. He said more investment in raising cattle and processing beef in the state, seeing the process through from farm to market, would create thousands of jobs.

“That’s where the most dramatic increase in jobs could occur,” he said. “I don’t know why counties aren’t getting on board with having those operations done entirely in their area.”

Whether beef is the future of West Virginia farming remains to be seen, but it certainly isn’t being glossed over at the conference. Conference programs focusing on the meat industry include “Local Meat Marketing: Opportunities & Challenges of Working with Small Meat Processors to Direct Market Product” and “Finishing Cattle on Pasture.”

“We need to look at these places that are getting it done and apply that everywhere,” McConnell said of the conference’s programs. “If we just make small changes in the process, the future is bright.”

The Small Farm Conference program begins at 8:30 a.m. each day and ends around 5:30 p.m. The full schedule can be viewed at http://smallfarmcenter.ext.wvu.edu/r/download/ 234106. In-person walk-ins for the conference are accepted, provided the printed form linked at http://smallfarmcenter.ext.wvu.edu/events/conference/registration is completed and brought to the conference. The registration cost is $70 per day, or $190 for all three days.

Reach Max Garland at max.garland@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-4886 or follow @MaxGarlandTypes on Twitter.

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