Since joining the team at the New River Gorge Regional Development Authority as an AmeriCorps VISTA in February 2014, Rachelle Garner has contributed to the growing agribusiness and local foods movement in the counties of the New River Gorge region.

Since moving to West Virginia as an AmeriCorps VISTA in 2013, she reflects on the change she’s seen, by stating “I think West Virginia is making steps toward developing a true food system.” Her service highlighted the many agriculture organizations in the area that focus on many different areas. Rachelle explains that “In a way this is a really good thing because organizations tend to assist farmers in their own respective specialty and producers have a myriad of organizations willing to help them.”

During this time, she also became familiar with the challenges local farmers face in establishing West Virginia as a national competitor with traditional crops. Most of the land in the NRGRDA’s four county region is quite difficult to farm thus making it more expensive to produce. Even considering that, there is a tremendous demand for locally grown food, and plenty of capacity for small farmers to add to their traditional income with revenue from retail farm product sales.

As her time with the Development Authority ends, she would like to see more growers and better aggregation points/routes to take regional farming to the next level. Luckily, she reflects “This goal is one that most organization are working together toward. This combined with the fact that interest in farming and in local foods continues to grow, means that conditions for agribusiness in our region are improving.

While Rachelle worked with dozens of farmers, agribusiness support organizations, and volunteers, her time as an AmeriCorps VISTA in the region, had a profound impact. One of those accomplishments includes organizing the Evening Market in Summers County in partnership with Stacy Ford and David Richmond. Though trying new/extended hours is always a challenge this will likely pay dividends for that community in the coming season.  Another accomplishment was the assembly and assisted production of Appreciation Week at the Uptown Beckley Farmers’ Market, The promotional success of this appreciation week led to a significant increase in both vendors and customers. Most recently, Rachelle helped bring community partners together to complete the national Promise Zone Grant application. The implications of the NRGRDA potentially receiving the designation would be profound and long lasting.

In reflection of her time with the NRGRDA, local farmers, farm-to-table restaurant owners, and grant funding organizations, Rachelle still believes there’s a lot West Virginia can look forward to. She believes that increasing farm to table restaurants in the area will allow for the necessary aggregation of local products that are needed to establish stability for farmers and consumers.  She also explained how she thinks there may still be untapped potential for the region. “I would love to see our region find its agricultural niche on the national level. This could be ramps, forest mushrooms, hops, or something we haven’t thought of yet.”

Regardless of what comes next for West Virginia small farms and local producers, Rachelle is proud to have been able to work so closely with both the WVU and WVSU Extension Service programs and producers like Mitchel, the owner of the Briarpatch, a pick your own berry farm in Mt. Hope.

“I learned a tremendous amount from the producers, our partners, and the impact agriculture has on the Mountain State.” Rachelle reflects.

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