Fritz Boettner has hands in the dirt at Sprouting Farms even while he works to multiply similar endeavors throughout The Mountain State
SWEET SPRINGS, W.Va. — Sorting out the various roles that Fritz Boettner fills in developing farms in West Virginia is about as easy as weeding a garden. Nevertheless, it’s clear that just like the gardener weeding her garden, Boettner is willing to do the hard work required to see those life-sustaining vegetables survive.
Boettner is the Director of Sprouting Farms, which is due east from here, not far as the crow flies, in neighboring Summers County. He is employed by West Virginia University as part of its Center for Resilient Communities. A program of the Department of Geography, Boettner is the Food Development Director for that program. From that work came Sprouting Farms. And while he does keep his hands in the dirt a good bit, he offered, “I spend the majority of my time making these things happen.”
“These things” include not only Sprouting Farms but also the Turnrow Appalachian Farm Collective.
Boettner will be speaking at the Sweet Springs Sustainable Living Forum set for Aug. 16-18 here. His topic will be “Food Security.” He is scheduled to speak Saturday morning during the 10 a.m. session devoted to ensuring the safety of vulnerable people, food and water.
A native of Charleston, Boettner explained, “From Sprouting Farms, Turnrow was born. We offer training and resources for farmers. The point is to create sustainable farms and establish markets. We work to establish markets with schools, hospitals, online to individuals, and others. The goal is cooperation.” Working with an FDA-approved processing kitchen, Boettner shared, “We are really trying to open up a variety of channels here.”
He insisted, “We believe that in order to improve the health of our communities and redefine Appalachia’s economy, we must return to the grower heritage and food traditions that helped to form this region. To do that, we are building a system that connects Appalachian homegrown food with folks from near and far. This means more income for farmers, more agricultural jobs, and a healthier food system. When it comes to food, we’re all in this together.”
As Sprouting Farm’s website notes, “Sprouting Farms is a four-season non-profit farm and education and resource center. Sprouting Farms is located on 82 acres outside of Talcott. We believe that long-lasting impact is created by training new farmers in quality and sustainable production techniques, and by providing shared resources and educational opportunities to the whole farm community.” It continues, “Our programs provide farmers with sound business management and production skills, hands-on apprenticeship and mentorship, and the land and resources necessary to launch and refine their farm businesses.”
The farm has 20 acres of dedicated to crops and/or high tunnel land, and another 60+ acres of rolling pasture. It offers apprenticeships, farmland and high tunnel rental, production farm and educational programming.
Sprouting Farms was established in 2017, though work began three years earlier with a USDA Rural Business Enterprise Grant to fund the feasibility and business model. Subsequently, Sprouting Farms was awarded an Appalachian Regional Commission POWER grant and also received support from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and the One Foundation. It’s geographical focus is the New and Greenbrier River Valleys.
According to the farms’ website, it’s vision is “ … a future where there are new and beginning farmers thriving in the New and Greenbrier River Valley regions. New and existing farms have access to the key business education and training needed to support their farm endeavors, and individuals all have access to the land and growing space solution that helps them build their assets, capital, and farm businesses. We see a future where local food is served not just at home but also in local schools and institutions, in local grocery stores, and throughout our community. We hope to create fair employment opportunities and encourage farm planning for sustainable production. We envision a vibrant farm community, preserving agricultural heritage and supporting farmer-to-farmer relationships and knowledge transfer for the generations to come.”
That vision is in practice at Turnrow Appalachian Farm Collective, where a primary objective is to guarantee that the region has food for vulnerable populations in times of emergencies.
It’s website notes, “Every day, we work with family-owned, independent farms collecting their homegrown food and connecting it to larger markets. To do that, Turnrow partners with, producers, co-ops and food hubs throughout the region to ensure that fresh quality food is distributed quickly and efficiently to buyers that value the grit, dedication, and craft that working in these mountains and valleys have required of our farmers for generations. This means more income for farmers, more agricultural jobs, and a healthier food system for everyone.”
Boettner says southeastern West Virginia is particularly susceptible to food shortages because of its isolated location and small population. “In my mind, one of our greatest threats is that a large percentage of the food that comes into West Virginia is from one farm in California.” He added, A collapse could come from a host of things, but climate change is certainly one we contend with.”
We need to identify where our food comes from, and how resilient those regions are to climate change. With excess rainfall, drought, and extreme weather events, we need to know how resilient our food source areas are to the pressures that they face.
He is looking beyond West Virginia. He often thinks about the question, “What is Appalachia’s role in food systems?” he shared. “That’s research I would like to do. We need to identify where our food comes from, and how resilient those regions are to climate change. With excess rainfall, drought, and extreme weather events, we need to know how resilient our food source areas are to the pressures that they face.”
That is but a beginning, though, asserted Boettner.. He continued, “What can we do in our community to mitigate that? All it takes is for one bad event to happen and your food disappears or you have to pay more because of supply and demand.” And, he noted, the region could help feed other regions. “Appalachia could play a critical role. With climate change, Appalachia will be a little warmer, making for longer growing seasons that are consistently wet.” So, said Boettner, food that is produced through cooperatives will feed not only the cooperative’s members, but others and help produce income for the farmers. Still, he noted that because of the state’s geography, the scale of production on any one farm won’t compare to what the Midwest has traditionally produced. That’s the reason why cooperatives are essential, he notes.
Cooperatives may also be the only answer to corporate control of much of the farms in the United States. Boettner noted that six large corporations dominate food production and three buyers essentially hold a monopoly on buying and distributing food. “You can’t ignore the market,” he said. “We should be more resilient.” So, with very little market share, only small congressional subsidies for small farmers, climate change and other stresses, Boettner is constantly trying to find markets for West Virginia’s small farmers. “You must recognize the market opportunity. Understand market conditions and work within them.”
So, said Boettner, he hooks up cooperative farmers with health nutritionists and extension services that have “pop-up” markets. There, farmers give food away to those with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
He concluded, “Selling is not the problem. It’s growing. We need to scale up to a level where more people can afford to farm.”
Previous articles about the Sustainable Living Forum:
© Michael M. Barrick, 2019.