SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. -- New federal grants will help The Conservation Fund offer hands-on business coaching, training and marketing tips to help West Virginia farmers and food producers grow their ventures over the next three years.The group's Natural Capital Investment Fund
in Shepherdstown will serve 17 counties, or nearly one-third of the state.Initial support for the Value Chain Cluster Initiative came from a federal Rural Jobs Accelerator Challenge Grant, a partnership involving the Economic Development Administration, the USDA Rural Community Development Initiative and the Appalachian Regional Commission.Thirteen grants were awarded, two of them to West Virginia, said Marten Jenkins, president of the NCIF.
The state then won $900,000 in matching funds from various partners, Jenkins said. They include the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition
, Collaborative for a 21st Century Appalachia and the New Appalachian Farm and Research Center.The USDA's agricultural census says the number of West Virginia farmers selling products directly to consumers grew 39 percent between 2002 and 2007, and that number is still growing.A separate January study by Downstream Strategies of Morgantown suggested the state could create more than 1,700 jobs if all West Virginians bought and consumed local produce during the growing season. Other jobs would likely be created in related industries the initiative targets, such as processing kitchens, slaughterhouses and distribution companies.There has never been such great opportunity for local food producers, said Tom McConnell, leader of the West Virginia Small Farm Center at WVU Extension Servicek."Local food can make a better life for the farmers, but it can also increase the job opportunities for communities that stand up and get involved by adding value, performing the marketing and trucking and all of those things," he said."One county school system in West Virginia spent $1.5 million on food, providing the equivalent of 57 full time jobs," McConnell said. "Now, will those be here or someplace else? That's for us to decide."