Appalachian Regional Commission Foodways tours Barbour farms

Jeff Sickler joked that if he knew beforehand just how lucrative high-tunnel farming could be, he would have put his own money into it.

Now that he realizes the advantages of the system, he said he would offer up his own cash – if he could not obtain grant funding to erect another structure.

The Sickler farm just outside of Philippi was just one of the stops on an Appalachian Regional Commission Foodways Tour Wednesday. Officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Resources Conservation Service and other state and local agencies viewed how their programs are enhancing production.

Increased production has led to a larger Community Garden Market in town and more tax revenue being generated, which allows the agencies to continue funding those and other collaborative programs.

“There has been a lot of investments in this area,” said Savanna Lyons of the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition. “Everybody is grateful for that support.”

Sickler came to Barbour County about three years ago after leading several mission trips to the area. He purchased acreage on Chestnut Ridge and sent up a prayer.

“I said, ‘Lord, how can we use this?” he recalled. “That was at 8 a.m. At 8:30, we got a call from Wes-Mon-Ty (Conservation District), and we got our first high tunnel.”

A high tunnel works similar to a greenhouse, except that there is no heating source other than the sun. The crops, instead of being placed on pots along benches, are planted into the soil. The idea behind the program is that it allows the farmers to extend the growing season. That first year, Sickler grew about 1,200 mums, which he sold in about two weeks.

“I thought we could be on to something here,” he said.

He and other members of the Tygart Valley Growers Association have also benefited from the growing Community Garden Market in Philippi. The Market, which is run by the Heart and Hand Ministries, sells the local growers’ wares, giving them 80 percent of the sale price. The other 20 percent is used to maintain operations at the market.

The TVGA formed about four years ago after several local producers decided to get together to share ideas.

“We learned that by working together, we can get things done,” Mary Beth Lind said. “Some of us like to market, and some don’t. We all like to grow. It’s nice to have a place to bring our produce.”

The TVGA helps others build those high tunnels, as members tell of events similar to Amish barn raisings.

“We make the rounds, like the Amish do for barn raisings,” Sickler said. “To have people you are supposed to be in competition with share information to help you succeed, it really blows you away.”

The Community Garden Market has also been blown away by the support it has received from the public. The demand for locally grown produce has practically forced the Market to relocate.

“We are bursting at the seams when things get rocking and rolling,” said Brenda Hunt, the executive director of Hearts and Hands.

The agency is in the process of purchasing the former IGA building in Philippi, and it plans to relocate the Market there in July. The move will allow the Market to remain open throughout the year, and there are plans to offer expanded services because of its proximity to a growing Alderson-Broaddus College.

Plans for the new facility initially call for a coffee and doughnut shop, complete with WiFi capabilities. The next phase calls for the doughnut shop to expand into a full bakery and cafe, offering baked goods and sandwiches made from locally grown items.

“We are trying to add things to help make the Market more sustainable,” Hunt said. “We have grant proposals to help with the different pieces. It will be a great place for the students and for the community.”