A better way to distribute the foods of small-scale farmers is a necessity if West Virginia is to advance its agricultural economy, those involved in the industry say, but how to go about that is a different story.
Aggregation facilities allow small-scale growers to process and prepare foods for market with high-level equipment, as well as being a point of contact for the growers and food distribution businesses.
A recent attempt by the state to provide that type of service has shut down after less than two years of existence.
Last month, the state Department of Agriculture closed its Huntington Aggregation Facility launched under the prior administration. The facility opened in June 2016 and was anticipated to be the first of many the department would launch across the state, according to former Commissioner of Agriculture Walt Helmick. The facility aimed to serve growers and distributors in Cabell County and five neighboring counties, he said.
The facility had a walnut sheller, honey extractor, a place to wash vegetables and other items, he said. But the center’s largest investment was its potato processing machine, which cleans, dries and packages potatoes and places them in 50-pound bags.
The intent of purchasing the machine was to revive West Virginia’s potato production by having a resource where farmers could easily get potatoes ready for market on a large scale, Helmick said.
But Kent Leonhardt, who now heads the Department of Agriculture, said the Huntington facility was “poorly thought out” and “rarely used,” with its potato processing machine not seeing enough activity to justify its price tag as the state continues having budget issues. The facility cost the department $1 million, according to Leonhardt.
Leonhardt supports the concept of aggregation facilities, but he said their development should be left to the private sector with the state clearing the path, raising awareness and encouraging funding from grants and other avenues.
Aggregation facilities can be of particular benefit to small farms, which are frequent in West Virginia, he said. The facilities open the path to sell their items at not just farmers markets, but to large-scale institutions via a distributor.
“The idea is to bring in a product to a centralized place, so [producers] don’t have to deliver to places one by one,” he said.
Future aggregation facilities should look at niche crops, like basil or mushrooms, instead of more common crops like potatoes, Leonhardt said.
“Why would you go for a truck full of potatoes when you could get a truck full of basil and make $10,000?” he said.
Bill Stewart, chair of the West Virginia Conservation Agency’s Guyan District, which was a partner in the project, said the facility’s closure will “really put a hurt” on area farmers that were looking to increase production for potatoes and other root crops. Some of the program participants will continue to grow potatoes, but on a smaller scale, he said.
“West Virginia can grow potatoes, there’s a history of it,” he said. “The notion that [potatoes] don’t grow here is real false.”
Usage of the potato processing plant was limited early on due to a “terrible” stretch of weather, Stewart said. The plant would have seen much more activity in normal weather conditions and if the new administration had promoted it more, he said.
Even if West Virginia is not among the top potato producers, Helmick said there needs to be a push for in-state food production so more items can be delivered fresh and not imported from a far off state.
“We import everything we eat,” Helmick said. “That can get expensive. Now’s the time to change.”
Helmick said his administration had plans to develop additional aggregation points across the state, including facilities in Mason, Roane and Kanawha counties and a joint venture with A.F. Wendling’s Foodservice in Buckhannon.
Keith Buchanan, director of strategic initiatives at A.F. Wendling’s Foodservice, said the Huntington Aggregation Center was “a really big try,” but it could have been better served with a clearer roadmap. He said any aggregation facilities planned in the future should prioritize a location within 150 to 200 miles of the largest concentration of growers, along with a loading dock for easy transportation by distributors.
Hopefully, new facilities will be developed soon, he said, as the current system has its limits.
“What has to happen still is growers have to find the market,” Buchanan said. “The future is for distributors to find the growers, because right now it isn’t a good food system.”
Aggregation facilities are “definitely needed” in the state, said Spencer Moss, executive director of the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition. However, they would likely have to be smaller than the Huntington facility. Additional dedicated cold storage spaces in future facilities would be particularly helpful for small farms, she said.
Bob Corey of Corey Brothers, a Charleston-based food distributor, said the future of aggregation facilities in the state is a “chicken or the egg” dilemma.
The facilities would help encourage more farming and agriculture in the state, since growers would have a clear path to distribution on a larger scale, he said. Yet, like the Huntington facility, they won’t survive if they have to wait for the sector to grow and use it, he added.
That’s why patience must be exercised for any type of aggregation facility, according to Corey.
“We have to crawl first, then we can walk, then we can run,” he said of the state’s agriculture sector.