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WVU study: Supplying local foods to restaurants could grow economy

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While it's no secret most of the state's restaurants get their food from processing plants located in various parts of the country, some restaurants would rather get their food from local growers.

However, West Virginia farms often don't grow enough fresh fruits and vegetables to meet the needs of the state's residents, markets and restaurants.

According to the West Virginia Food System Study, an effort of the West Virginia University Extension Agency and Downstream Strategies, expanding the growth of fruits and vegetables to meet 100 percent of the need would result in 1,723 new jobs and $120.8 million in additional sales. The findings of the study were presented Jan. 7 to the Legislature's Agriculture and Agri-business Interim Committee. Daniel Eades, an extension specialist, pointed out that West Virginia has no shortage of beef farms, but fresh fruit and vegetable farms are far fewer and much smaller.

"We've got roughly 24,000 farms," Eades told the committee. "But these are very small farms. They're about half the size of the national average in terms of acreage."

Cow/calf operations are the most abundant and can be found all over the state. However, fresh fruit and vegetable farms are distributed closer to population centers, such as the Kanawha Valley, the Interstate 70 corridor, Wheeling and the Eastern Panhandle. Although the growth of fruit does not come close to the amount of fresh beef grown in West Virginia, it does do pretty well, particularly apples.

"This is one where West Virginia actually does very well," Eades said. "We rank 10th nationally in apple sales.

"Vegetables, though, are much lower. We have $5.8 million total in sales. This has increased …between 2002 and 2007."

The study looked at the feasibility of increasing the growth of fruits and vegetables in West Virginia. According to the study, farmers would need to farm about 7,000 acres of vegetables to fill the shortfall, or about 6,000 acres more than what is currently being farmed. For fruit, farmers would need to grow about 845 additional acres. Despite the state's mountainous terrain, Eades said there is plenty of space for farmers to grow these additional acres.

"Do we have these acres in West Virginia? The answer is yes," Eades said.

Downstream Strategies estimated 4.2 million acres of potential farmland in West Virginia. With 3.7 million acres of that land currently being farmed, that leaves 500,000 acres of untapped farmland.

"We could expand production without affecting current operations," Eades said. "There is plenty of room for everybody to participate."

Eades said most of the potential farmland is located in the Greenbrier Valley, along the Ohio River and in the Eastern Panhandle. The study points specifically at land along the Hardy and Grant county borders, which has slope of less than 2 percent.

"In this small area right here in Hardy County, you're looking at 10 percent of the acres to grow all the vegetable crops in West Virginia," he said.

But that farmland may not be there if it's not used or protected. Eades said the population growth in the Eastern Panhandle leads to a decrease in the amount of land available for farming.

"We'd like to see emphasis on protecting farmland in the state," he told the committee. "Right now areas like the Eastern Panhandle, which are hotspots for growing and hotspots for demand, are losing prime farmland for housing development."

Eades said he'd like to see farming treated more like a business and laws structured in a way that make farming more profitable.

To see the study, visit http://www.downstreamstrategies.com/documents/reports_publication/ds_food_system_report_final.pdf.