- Associated Press - Sunday, April 27, 2014

SANDSTONE, W.Va. (AP) - John Yates wants to grow potatoes to supply Monroe County schools.

He’s got a business plan, he can get the equipment and 3 tons of seed potatoes. The land for lease in Sweet Springs is farther from his Ballard home than he’d like, but with a little help, the active duty Army staff sergeant and his sister Rebecca are ready to begin.

For farmers like the Yateses, there’s money on the table.

They got to learn what and where some of those resources are at the Farm, Food, Finance seminar held at the Sandstone Visitor Center on April 22.

A panel of business and finance experts was available to help the Yateses and other farmers begin a process that experts say will ultimately grow the local economy and help residents lead healthier lives.

Jim Epling with the West Virginia Small Business Development Office has a counseling-coaching program that will help entrepreneurs in all kinds of industries, including agriculture.

Epling advised the group of about 25 that finding out about the state’s business regulations and financing for the projects are the first two things on any to-do list. But the next thing businesses should do is figure out a marketing plan.

Knowing who the customers are first, and how they can be reached, is key to success in any business, Epling noted. From idea to implementation, Epling said his agency can be as involved as any business wants it to be.

“We’re a stakeholder in what you do,” he said. “We’re in it for the long haul.”

Although Epling said he’s not as familiar with the agriculture business as he is other industries, he does get the importance of local foods.

“It’s in our best interest to be more efficient and self-sustaining,” he said.

Others on the panel - Jim Brouse from Natural Capital Investment Fund, Jeffery Johnson from Region I Planning and Development, Vinson Snuffer from Farm Credit and Kathy Calhoun from New River Gorge Regional Development Authority - were connections to financing programs that could be suited to each farm need.

Any questions about supply and demand for fresh, local products were quickly answered by Greenbrier Nurseries owner Jim Monroe. Formerly solely in the ornamental horticulture business, an industry hit hard by the recent economic unpleasantness, the local foods movement was an unseen opportunity for Monroe.

But once he started down the garden path, he’s seen interest in the local foods movement grow as more and more people want to know where their food comes from and what might be included in the purchase. Young families are asking about genetically modified foods, pesticides and herbicides, Monroe said.

All of that can be answered by a local grower.

“It’s not just growing a product, it’s engaging customers,” he said.

Monroe built his own business plan that has an online marketplace as well as the Farm to Table markets in Beckley and Roanoke Va., where he’s selling just about double the produce he’s selling here.

“What we’re onto is something really great,” Monroe said. “(But) we need more, better vendors.”

And he’s not just talking about large vendors. While the business needs large, anchor products from Greenbrier Nurseries and Swift Level Farms, Monroe said they also need small vendors who want to sell eggs, greens, vegetables and even maple syrup.

As for the Yates family, Rebecca said they aren’t limited to potatoes, and will grow whatever the market needs.

They grew up on a farm in Mercer County, and as her brother transitions out of the Army, they’re looking forward to a return to lives that put them in touch with the earth.

“We’re trying to do this as a family thing: Everybody pulls together, everybody works together,” she said.


Information from: The Register-Herald, https://www.register-herald.com

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