West Virginia, known as the mountain state, lies in the Appalachian Mountains. It is the only state that lies entirely in the Appalachian Mountain Region. West Virginia is home to over 20,000 farms. Unlike farms in other states, West Virginia farms are predominantly small in size. The average West Virginia farm is 168 acres (USDA, 2014a), while the average farm size across the United States is 446 acres (Farms and Land in Farms, 2014). The difference in size can be attributed in part to West Virginia’s high poverty rate and a corresponding cultural tradition of kitchen gardens. The state’s rugged terrain is also a factor. The landscape does not allow for large fields filled with a single crop. In West Virginia, you are either on the mountain or in the valley, and farms follow suit. In the past decade the number of farms in West Virginia has fallen. From 2007 to 2012, West Virginia lost approximately 2,000 farms (USDA, 2014a). This decline mirrors national trends. In 1935, the United States had 6.8 million farms (EPA, 2013). Now, the nation has only 2.1 million farms (USDA, 2014a).
The state’s geography has also created isolated communities that sometimes lack ready access to grocery stores. Some West Virginians combat the problem with kitchen gardens, which range in size from a few plants to entire backyards. This custom also saves money, crucial in the second poorest state in the nation (Dill, 2014). Kitchen gardens are also historically linked to the mountain state’s traditional industry: coal mining. When miners could only buy groceries at inflated prices at the company store, miner’s wives grew what food they could at home. Traditionally, coal mines have provided families a steady income that did not require a college education. Today, with many mines laying off employees or closing entirely, coal can no longer be relied on as a career.
Following national trends, West Virginians are now putting increasing importance on health and healthy food; the state is one of the unhealthiest in the nation (Mattheis, 2014; Frohlich & Hess, 2014). The increasing demand for healthy food has led to an increase in farmers markets, allowing easier access to locally-grown food. The increase in markets is also benefitting farmers, who use farmers markets to sell their products directly to consumers.
Hope & Hard Work profiles four West Virginia farming families, using photographs, video, audio, text, and structured interviews. The profiles were compiled over a nine-month period, beginning in the fall of 2014 and ending the spring of 2015. Each family profiled represents a different aspect of West Virginia farming, and each embodies both old and new farming strategies.
Documentary projects have been used to explore countless subjects and have been proven an invaluable method of exploration. Maccarone (2010) defined a documentary as a project that attempts to tell a true story, often from a particular perspective, and tries to elicit a feeling similar to the real event or person, relying little on the obvious manipulation of images and sound. In keeping with this definition, Hope & Hard Work visually profiles four West Virginia farms.
Visual storytelling works to provide insight into the lives of farmers that text alone cannot. Readers have the opportunity to see the faces of the men, women, and children who produce food in the mountain state and witness the work that is necessary to grow every tomato and to raise every sheep.
Visuals let viewers to empathize with story subjects by allowing viewers to witness subjects’ lives and make their own decisions about what they see. The importance of documentary work has been described as vital by Kerry Tremain, former executive editor of Mother Jones, who said, speaking of Antonin Kratochvil’s work, “Like the best documentary photographs, Kratochvil’s images conveyed an invaluable, if imperfect truth” (Light, 2000, p. 3).
The themes explored in Hope and Hard Work include the responsibilities that are inherent in operating a farm, the innovations and changes that are necessary to keep a farm financially productive, and the uncertainties, both financial and otherwise, that are faced by farmers. Hope & Hard Work demonstrates the diversity of West Virginia farms and farmers with images of their daily lives and audio recordings in their own words.
- The Hardesty’s Working H Farms straddles the border of West Virginia and Maryland. The Hardesty’s founded their farm approximately 15 years ago when they decided to raise their own livestock in order to have healthier meat for their family. As demand increased, the farm grew, and the Hardestys opened a butcher shop in November 2014.
Glenn and Terrie Hardesty operate the Working H farm and business with the help of their fourteen-year-old son Justin and some additional help from Glenn’s parents. The entire family shares the workload, including Justin, who began homeschooling this year so that he can spend more time at the shop and on the farm. Justin expects to inherit the farm someday, and his father is proud that the family has built something that can be inherited by future generations.
- Mary Oldham and her husband Francisco “Chico” Ramirez own and operate Mountain Harvest Farm, an organic vegetable farm near Morgantown, West Virginia. Mountain Harvest was founded in 2013, after Mary and Chico moved to Mary’s hometown of Morgantown. The couple met in Chico’s home country of Honduras where Mary was serving in the Peace Corps.
Mary and Chico farm on rented land, and in 2015 they expanded their cultivated land from two to three acres. They sell their vegetables at local farmers markets and directly to consumers with Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). CSA participants pay Mary and Chico in the spring and receive weekly baskets of vegetables through the summer and fall.
- John Stenger has been farming in North Central West Virginia since 1976. He raises cattle and sheep on 1000 acres that is spread across several farms. Although John has been farming for nearly 40 years, the future of his farm is uncertain because none of his children want to farm. In the meantime, he continues to operate the farm to the best of his ability.
- The Samples live in Lost Creek, West Virginia. The family, Grayson, Kimberly, and their two daughters, live within the town limits on less than half an acre of land. Grayson, who works for a landscaping company, has converted most of the family’s lawn into food production. The Samples have a large vegetable garden, berry bushes, fruit trees, several chickens, and two beehives. Everything that is produced ends up on the family’s table.
Other West Virginia Farms
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is defined as a community of individuals who pledge support to an individual farm; members pay a fee and in return receive products from the farm, usually on a weekly basis (DeMuth, 1993). CSAs provide a variety of products, depending on the individual farm. Some CSA farms offer only fruits and vegetables, while others also offer meat, eggs, and dairy products (LocalHarvest, 2015). CSAs are becoming more popular across the United States (Siegel, 2005). CSAs give members a stake in the farm and allow them to participate in producing their own food (Nolan, 2015).
High tunnels are plastic-covered structures with rounded roofs that allow farmers to have crops available earlier and later than the typical growing season would allow (Petit, 2014). High tunnels are a valuable resource for small farmers, and the United States government has taken notice. Since 2009, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has provided assistance to help farmers build over 13,000 high tunnels across the country (Petit, 2014).
Winters in West Virginia do not allow farmers to grow fruits and vegetables in the open air. High tunnels are a cost-effective way to extend a growing season, costing less than an average greenhouse. This makes them available to farmers that could not afford a traditional greenhouse. They have become an important tool on small farms and can be seen on many West Virginia farms.
Wholesaling, the process of selling large quantities of products to be retailed by others, is a common practice for large farms, but smaller farms struggle to wholesale their products. The costs of marketing and transportation are two of the limiting factors that can prevent smaller farms from wholesaling their products (Dawson, 2012).
Included in this category is West Virginia Farm to School. Farm to School is a nationwide project that aims to increase communities’ connections with local farmers by getting locally grown food into schools that are local to the farms (National Farm to School Network, 2014). The project also includes school gardens and farm field trips. West Virginia has an active Farm to School program that encompasses multiple projects and organizations (WV Farm to School, 2014). As part of West Virginia Farm to School, farmers sell their products wholesale to schools in the state (WV HUB, 2014).
Fruit production also plays an important role in West Virginia’s farming landscape. The mountain state is home to 613 orchards, a number that has held steady since 2007 (USDA, 2014b). These orchards consist of more than 6,000 acres of trees, which produce a variety of fruits.
Overall, West Virginia has a robust and diverse number of orchards, and they are changing the way that some West Virginians get their produce. Kilmer’s Farm and Orchard, located in Inwood, West Virginia, currently supplies produce to all of the public schools in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle (West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition, 2015). Kilmer’s is not able to grow all of the produce needed for the schools so the farm buys from other growers. Kilmer’s supplies the schools with local fruits, as long as they are in season, giving at least some of the state’s school children a chance to eat home-grown fruit on a regular basis.
Poultry, domestic birds raised for eggs or meat, is one of West Virginia’s most profitable farm commodities. Broilers, chickens raised for their meat, alone account for approximately 30% of West Virginia’s farming revenues (Meter, 2011). Poultry and eggs together total just short of 50% of the state’s total farming revenues, and together they consist of West Virginia’s most profitable farming commodity (USDA, 2014f). Chickens are the most prevalent kind of poultry in the state, with 3,482 farms housing either layers, broilers, or both (USDA, 2014e). A wide range of poultry is raised in the state. Several hundred farms raise turkeys, and other farms raise ducks, geese, emus, and guineas. Some mountain state farms even cultivate exotic species such as ostriches and rheas. Overall, poultry and egg sales in West Virginia totaled more than $400 million in 2012 (USDA, 2014c).
Poultry cultivation constitutes some of the mountain state’s larger farming operations. Although there are not many compared to other types of farms, West Virginia houses chicken farms that raise broilers for companies such as Pilgrim’s, one of the largest chicken producers in the world (Jenner, 2014). These farms represent some of the larger-scale farming in the state, and they produce thousands of chicken per month, which are sold nationally and around the world.
The mountain state is home to 438 farms with dairy cows (USDA, 2014d). Most of those farms have herds that number from one to nine cows, but others have herds in the hundreds. In 2012, 140 West Virginia farms sold milk from their dairy herds (USDA, 2014d). Those farms brought in more than $32 million that year.
Organic milk production is coming to the state more slowly. West Virginia has only a few organic dairy farms, and Perk Farm Organic Dairy in southern West Virginia is one of those few (Speciale, 2014). The farm is home to several hundred Jersey cows, whose milk ends up in products in West Virginia and across the United States (Nolan, 2011). The dairy supplies the Organic Valley cooperative, which produces a variety of products (Speciale, 2014). The demand for organic milk currently exceeds the supply, with farmers claiming that the scarcity of organic feed is to blame. Perk Farm has not been immune to the difficulties, although the farm grows most of its own feed.
West Virginia recently saw a bill that would have allowed mountain state residents to consume raw milk go before Governor Tomblin, who vetoed the bill, citing health concerns (Jenkins, 2015). The bill would have allowed West Virginia residents to participate in herd-sharing, purchasing part of a cow or a herd and drinking milk from that cow or herd. Currently, only farmers who directly own cows are legally allowed to consume unpasteurized milk. The bill would have made raw milk available to anyone with the means and interest to purchase part of a cow (Stone, 2015). Though the bill was defeated, it is possible that a similar bill will be introduced next year, as some members of the West Virginia House of Delegates do not intend to let go of the issue (Johnson, 2015). Should raw milk become legally available in West Virginia, it could potentially change the state’s milk production landscape.
Another aspect of West Virginia food culture is the cultivation and aggregation of native Appalachian plants, such as ginseng and ramps. Ginseng is native to Appalachia and is valuable as a medicinal herb. The root is especially valued in China where it has been picked to near extinction. American ginseng is prized above Chinese ginseng, as it is considered to have better healing qualities (Rosenwald, 2013). The roots can be sold for as much as $1,000 per pound. The increasing demand for ginseng has caused a decline in the number of wild plants.
Ramps represent a less monetized West Virginia commodity, but they are just as culturally important to the region. Ramps are a species of wild onion with a distinct odor and strong taste. They grow throughout the state and are harvested in April and May. Every spring, trucks appear on the side of West Virginia roads with hand-written signs advertising “Ramps” and beds filled with bags of the pungent plant. The onions are so celebrated in West Virginia that a ramps festival has been held yearly in Richwood for the past 77 years.
Though West Virginia was home to 21,489 farms in 2012, farming in the state has followed national trends and declined. Of the farms that remain in the state, more than 20,000 of them are less than 500 acres in size (USDA, 2014a). Most West Virginia farms also meet the USDA’s definition of a small farm by earning less than $250,000 per year (USDA, 2014a). In fact in 2012, 88% of mountain state farms had annual sales of less than $25,000.
Small physical size, however, is not the determining factor of a successful farm. Mary Oldham and Chico Ramirez operate Mountain Harvest on only three acres, and the Samples produce their fruits, vegetables, eggs, and honey on a third of an acre. Successful farming requires long hours of hard work and a willingness to embrace the inherent financial risks of operating a farm. The farmers profiled are all facing those risks by utilizing tried and true farming strategies while also incorporating new techniques that they hope will let their farms thrive in an uncertain food and farming future.
Limitations of this study include the small number of farms profiled and the narrow geographic range explored. Due to the time constraints of this project, it was only possible to visually examine four of the 21,000 farms in West Virginia. Additionally, the farms photographed were all located in North Central West Virginia. Opportunities for further research include profiling more farms and increasing the geographic scope of the project to include profiles of farms in other regions of the state.
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