WHEELING, W.Va. — Agriculture is just different in West Virginia’s northern panhandle, says Matt Pounds. He grew up in Indiana and went to college on the western side of Ohio, where open, relatively flat fields of corn, soybeans and cattle dominated the landscape.
In West Virginia, the state’s economy has been historically defined by coal, more than agriculture. There’s also a lot less flat ground and a lot more hills and trees. Getting to Grow Ohio Valley’s Big Wheeling Agrarian Center, where Pounds is the farm manager, requires a drive through Wheeling Creek.
At the agrarian center, he and several other first generation farmers are building a diversified, “full diet” farm, which will also serve as training grounds for other beginning farmers in the area. The rural farm complements work that Grow Ohio Valley, a nonprofit that focuses on building the local food system, is doing with urban farms in Wheeling.
“Healthy urban cores need healthy rural communities or rural areas around them to support that urban core,” Pounds said.
Pounds was raised around farming, but he always thought he would be an English teacher. He got into agriculture after he started reading more about the environment, changes in the climate and some of the causes for that. That made him curious about how people interact with the environment around them.
“I figured the best way to understand where I was living was to try and grow all my own food,” Pounds said.
Agriculture around where he grew up was mostly commodity crops and beef cows — just a small portion of his diet. He started working with Grow Ohio Valley on urban farms growing mostly organic vegetables — also just a part of his food.
That led him to spend some time working on and learning from farms in other states. A farm in New York, Essex Farm, inspired him the most. It is a diversified, “full diet” — meaning, it produces everything an average person would eat — farm that offers a year-round CSA and includes multiple farmers who have different specialties.
That’s the kind of place he wants to build in West Virginia. So far, the agrarian center has a large garden, laying hens and meat chickens, hogs, a handful of dairy cows and hay.
“It’s called the Big Wheeling Agrarian Center because to me, what agrarian means is, looking at the land from which your food comes, on which you live, and the people who live around you, and deciding what’s going to work best for you and your family and your neighboring community,” Pounds said. “And that’s what’s best from a health perspective and what’s best from an economic perspective.”
The agrarian center isn’t the easiest place to build a farm. The farm doesn’t have electricity or running water yet — Pounds has to pump water from the creek for the livestock — and mud can be an issue. They have to be careful about stocking density.
The 25 acres it sits on used to be a corn field. While the soil there worked fine for corn, the farmers are now trying to build it back to work better for more diverse crops and livestock.
Getting equipment for the scale the farm is at can also be tricky, Pounds said. It’s too large to rely on gardening equipment, but it’s also not big enough to need major, commercial scale equipment.
A lot of the farm is about finding balance. Being as efficient as possible while spending enough time with each group of animals to make sure the livestock are staying healthy. Keeping customers close to the farm while bringing in enough money to cover labor and other costs. Getting high yields of crops, while also getting good nutritional quality.
Pounds also wants to keep the food the farm grows and the dollars it brings in local. For the first two years of the center, the farm’s products either sold at off farm sales, or at Grow Ohio Valley’s year-round grocery store in Wheeling, The Public Market. For Pounds, even that is a little too distant.
The farm recently launched an eight week food subscription program with 25 members, as a pilot. After that, the farmers will evaluate how the pilot went, make some tweaks and launch a year-long version next May.
They plan to invite members of the program to the farm for weekly dinners. Pounds is hoping that inviting people to the farm will help them be more connected with their food and the farmers who produce it.
“It’s important to me that the consumer knows all the challenges that face the producer,” Pounds said.
All of the farmers at the center are first generation farmers.
“We don’t have this collective experience or collective knowledge,” Pounds said. “We’re trying to look ahead two or three generations.”
Getting started in farming can be a chicken and egg kind of deal, Pounds said. It’s tricky if you don’t already have capital. And beginning farmers aren’t likely to have a lot of capital unless they already have a high value product bringing in money. It’s a difficult cycle to break.
The goal is for the farm to become an incubation space, where first generation farmers have support and resources to develop skills in agriculture. A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture grant is helping the farm break through that cycle and get over the initial hill of building infrastructure and paying the farmers while they get the farm fully up and running.
“Training people can only be your business if you, yourself, are a successful business operator. You have to get your product established first, then you can train other people,” Pounds said. “That’s the phase we’re in right now.”
Pounds learned a lot from working on other farms over the years. He still relies on “the old guard” in the area when something comes up that he hasn’t done before.
It’s not always easy, said Justice Hudson, one of the farmers in training at the Big Wheeling Agrarian Center. But he’s already learned a lot from the other farmers, in just a few months.
“I spent a lot of time just kind of being upset that I … didn’t learn how to garden or grow,” Hudson said. “But being out here, it’s just the willingness to teach … it is a training site; it’s hard, but it’s really not.”
The farmers support each other, and they all have their own specialties. Hudson is responsible for developing the customer-facing, business side of the farm. Mikelea Skidmore, another farmer who came to the center after spending several years with a small scale organic farm, is leading vegetable production.
Though the farmers at the center have no plans to leave right now, Pounds is hoping it can also be a launch pad for some farmers who want to strike out on their own, eventually. The farm he worked on in New York had about nine farmers who started out there and later launched their own businesses in the area. He would like to see something similar happen around the center.
“I thought that was a really cool way to build an agricultural community, and something that could be replicated, really, in most places,” he said.
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