HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — Speed-dating for farmers and businesses is what was going on Wednesday afternoon at the Big Sandy Superstore Arena Conference Center.
Local farmers and local restaurants, grocers and other institutions that buy food in bulk were getting to know each other. It was part of Huntington's first Local Food Expo, hosted by the Huntington 30 Mile Meal organization, along with Unlimited Future Inc. and the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition.
More than 70 growers and buyers signed up for the inaugural event. Another outcome has been the establishment of a Buyer-Grower Directory, which includes names and pertinent information about local farmers and their products and specialties, as well as local businesses and agencies that need food.
The event also featured panel discussions on the benefits and the "howto" of buying locally.
"It's been really great with the opening of The Wild Ramp (local food market in Huntington) and hearing individual consumers say, 'We want to support our neighbors and friends,' and now we're seeing businesses come on board," said Lauren Kemp, operations director at Unlimited Future and event coordinator.
"We want farmers to see themselves as business people, and this is a networking opportunity for them," she said.
The program is funded through a Specialty Crop Block Grant through the West Virginia Department of Agriculture. The Cabell County Farm Bureau was another sponsor. It's the first of a series of expos that will be held around the state, said Savanna Lyons, director of the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition.
For the first expo, "Our registration was really mind-blowing — 70 buyers and growers, 20 service providers. It's been really great to see all the people interested and go through the process of talking with them," Kemp said.
Many of the buyers have specific needs and were looking forward to an opportunity to let growers know what they are. Maybe they wanted grape tomatoes instead of cherry tomatoes, she said. They could express the varieties they're looking for, the timing they need to get the food out to the public most efficiently, and how much preparation is needed before it gets to them - whether they can wash and prep it themselves or they need it washed when it gets to their door.
Chris Shields, owner of The Jug and Kilt in Barboursville, and his chef-manager, Michael Eckstein, were among the restaurateurs represented. It was a good way to facilitate communication, they said.
"I like the idea of buying local," Shields said. "We could have a farmer around the corner from us and we wouldn't know it."
Dan Foglesong, a farmer from Mason County, sells to area school systems, including dried beans to Cabell County Schools. In that way, schools can buy the beans for the same price as they would from a larger national outfit, he said.
"That's been good. We cut out the middle man," he said.
Farmer Chad Smith from Fayette County was there not so much to find customers but to network with other farmers and get ideas about growing his business. He has a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program with 180 members who buy a basket filled with whatever produce he harvests from his farm weekly.
"It helps getting to know other growers and consumers and get information out there about turning a small hobby farm into a large production farm," Smith said.
More opportunities for communication and collaboration between local farmers and local businesses and institutions "will help create jobs and keep jobs," said David Wise, of Farm Credit of the Virginias, which makes loans to farms throughout the region.
"There's a big movement of eating locally grown and produced food," he said.
Huntington has something good going on, Lyons said. Wednesday's Local Food Expo in Huntington was the first of that scale in the state, she said.
In fact, the movement is gaining momentum so quickly it's apparent that it will be a challenge to keep up with it, said Gail Patton, executive director of Unlimited Future Inc.
"The potential for economic growth is huge," she said.
For more information about the Buyer-Grower Directory, or to be included in the directory, contact the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-465-5447. A statewide directory will be compiled in months to come.
The coalition can be found online at www.wvhub.org/wvffc.
Information from: The Herald-Dispatch, http://www.herald-dispatch.com