By Stephen Smoot
“We ship a lot of produce and product out, then we buy off a truck.” For decades, school systems in West Virginia’s agricultural counties have seen this situation until recently as described by Emmy Champ, child nutrition director for Pendleton County Schools. Now a new and growing partnership with local farmers seeks to change that dynamic.
This not only connects children with higher quality and locally produced food, but also the families and the traditions behind agriculture here in Pendleton County and across the Potomac Highlands region.
According to the West Virginia Department of Education, “the Farm-to-School initiative is an effort to connect schools with regional or local farms in order to serve healthy meals using locally produced foods.” Past experience shows that the program will improve child nutrition because students enjoy locally produced fruits and vegetables over other products that come “off the truck.” The program also provides access to superior meats, including the all important staple of ground beef.
As Champ explains, “we have all of these wonderful cows. We have all this wonderful corn.” She adds that in food purchases, “we need to keep the money in West Virginia. It’s government funding coming into West Virginia and just as fast, it’s going back out.”
The program does not simply focus on providing food, but also an education in how food gets to the table. As the WVDE states, “some school districts’ Farm to School activities may solely involve purchasing local farm products, while others view their school garden and farm field trips as “Farm to School.”
One of the major challenges lies in the scale of the typical individual farm in the area related to the needs of the market. For decades, the easiest path to market has been selling to large outside interests, over the years increasingly shipping West Virginia products out into the international market. Because many of the old local supply chains faded away over the years, it takes painstaking work to rebuild what was once the most natural set of local sources of food for schools, restaurants, and other establishments.
Dean’s Gap Farm in Fort Seybert, operated by Scott and Becky Rightsell, has already been working to help provide students with top quality vegetables. As Champ describes, “they have brought food to Brandywine Elementary and Franklin Elementary schools, baby grape tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers. These are foods that are easy to clean and don’t need USDA approval.”
That produce comes off of a farm operated by Becky Rightsell’s family for five generations. Despite the length of tradition, the Rightsells embrace modern innovation as the best way to deliver the highest quality food. They avoid using chemical pesticides, insecticides, and other similar products.
“We do a lot of natural things,” Becky Rightsell explains. “We use praying mantises and lady bugs. We might try wasps next.” Each predator insect is also native to the Pendleton County environment, so their introduction on the farm will not cause harm elsewhere. Scott Rightsell added that “we buy a bumblebee hive to help with pollination.” They also use a common brand of dishwashing detergent known as an environmentally safe cleaner along with olive oil based castile soap in a spray that makes the surfaces of produce unpleasant for pests.
Deans Gap Farm also uses high tunnel greenhouses to grow their produce. Becky Rightsell warns that the greenhouses do not reduce the amount of labor so much as require different forms of work. High tunnels offer benefits over traditional field production. Farmers can pinpoint the right amount of water in the right places for efficiency and less natural damage. Also, as Becky Rightsell describes, “another advantage is the extended growing season. Thanksgiving Day, I was picking beans. We were harvesting broccoli and cauliflower until Christmas.”
Pendleton County also relies on another multigenerational farm, the Flying W on U.S. Route 50 in Burlington, Mineral County, for meat. This farm, owned currently by Rick Woodsworth, provides “100 percent American beef.” He also stated that “we do purchase off of other producers,” which helps other farms benefit. The Flying W processes other meats from other farms, but “we predominantly do beef.”
“My great-grandfather was in Pittsburgh, an engineer in the steel industry designing I beams for steel structures,” Woodsworth says. He added that his great-grandfather returned to the region and married into the Zell family. His sons, Will and Don, will be the fifth generation to operate the farm when they take over.
“That’s how he got into it,” Woodsworth added. Pictures of the old two-story log house and the farm through the years line the wall of the farm’s small grocery and restaurant. A local and tourist favorite, the Woodsworths sell their own meat alongside other local agriculture products.
Local family farms, Woodsworth explains, offer value that cannot be quantified, but definitely help to create a superior product. He says “family farms are full of morals and values. We produce products that are what we want to eat ourselves and we have morals and ethics in doing that.”
Becky Rightsell agrees, adding that “it’s a matter of pride” in the minds of family farmers. Compared to massive corporate farms, “we’re small and we can do what we do well.” She explained that the small scale forces a farmer to focus on what they can offer at the highest quality, adding value along the way.
Better quality food made with the right ethics by farmers who care about their community have another important byproduct, especially for young growing students. Woodsworth shared that, “farm to table is one of the most positive things. When we put our beef out there, it gets consumed.”
He added that, “regarding the importance of the quality of the product, at the end of the day, we are what we eat. At the end of the day our health is determined by what we eat.” Now, because of this program, Pendleton County schoolchildren can enjoy the best of what local farmers have to offer.