Food, Justice, and Sustainability in West Virginia

April Koenig, the executive director of Sprouting Farms in Talcott, West Virginia, is not one for small plans: “Our vision is to see the right to food realized in West Virginia through a food system that fosters food sovereignty and equity.”

I spoke with April by phone in April of 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.  Unlike some small businesses, Sprouting Farms was “busier than ever.”  Partly, as I learned, because their mission was ambitious, even audacious, and their activities were varied and far-reaching.  

And the need is critical.  Koenig estimated that as many as 350,000 West Virginians cannot regularly cover the costs of healthy, accessible food.  As April said:

“West Virginia is at a crossroads. After more than a century of extraction and profiteering from the rich natural resource deposits in these mountains, there is a dire need to elevate and celebrate new patterns of economic development that can begin to reverse the decades of exploitation and structural poverty that have left communities with few opportunities to define their economic futures.”

Sprouting Farms is not simply a farm.  Yes, they produce food – and lots of it.   Sprouting Farms is also a non-profit farming education, resource, and training center with a broader focus on West Virginia food access and food system development.  They train new farmers in quality and sustainable production techniques as well as in business management and production skills.  The organization also provides shared resources, educational opportunities, and apprenticeship, mentoring, and farm business incubation opportunities. 

Beyond direct services to producers and growing produce, Sprouting Farms collaborates in food market and retail outlet development, shared marketing and distribution activities, operation of a producer cooperative, and supporting an array of other agriculture-related ventures. 

Given the complexity and extent of their operations with over 20 direct employees, multiple grant projects and funds, and a web of partners, suppliers, and customers, I assumed April had extensive prior experience in farming or business management.  Instead, she shared, “my background is in nursing.”  She came to this role through her interest in community health and well-being, food access and job creation. Her approach has been learning by doing, “you just jump in and figure it out.”

Sprouting Farms is not alone in this work. Koenig regularly engages with a cross-sectoral group of food system and anti-hunger stakeholders to tackle issues of food insecurity and access.   And the group’s vision is both inspiring and transformation-focused:

“We aim to restore meaningful livelihoods here through a food system that draws on the rich heritage of Appalachian foodways; from the indigenous communities that first settled here, to the rich diversity of workingclass immigrants that maintained their food and culinary traditions over the centuries. 

We elevate and celebrate stories of hope and resilience in the face of adversity through our work as seed stewards, farmers, cooks, caregivers, story tellers, researchers, policy makers and logisticians who care deeply about this place, and remain hopeful for a future that points to potential pathways toward food system restoration elsewhere.  

We are making locally grown nutrient dense food available for our communities, not just those who can afford it but for everyone. We are actively building a multi-stakeholder group of trainers, agricultural cooperative developers, food access and address policy practitioners that are addressing barriers opportunities for equitable food system change.”

Much of this ongoing work is collaborative.  Sprouting Farms is a lead member of a producer cooperative, the Turnrow Appalachian Farm Collective (TAFC).  Despite the covid-19 pandemic and the anticipated slower economy in the coming months, Koenig says that “2020 could still be a year we see exponential growth.”   Sprouting Farms, the Turnrow Collective, and other farmers have worked hard to build demand, from consumers, markets, and other purchasers.  The demand is there, and increasing.   The challenges remain most glaring on the supply side.  Despite a growing network of over 100 farmers, they are still “running out of produce” and need more producers to meet the growing demand across the state.

The work with producers is grassroots, personal, and intensive.  It may be as simple as leasing land, helping build hoop-houses for multi-season growing, or providing required training in safe agricultural practices. Sprouting Farms also realizes that a bottom-line concern for producers is equity – how much does a producer need to make to have a viable living in farming?

Partly this means helping producers grow food in quantities and forms that are needed by buyers such as schools, restaurants and local distributors.  To this end, Sprouting Farms also helps operate an FDA processing kitchen that works with producers on items like a spring mix of lettuces and greens, that is relatively time-consuming to sort, clean, and package.  Frozen roaster packages of winter vegetables such as squash and beets is another product they help producers prepare in retail-ready packaging for sale. 

For April, “We have been able to grow because we know we don’t have answers.”  This humility and openness to learning from others has enabled Koenig and her team to work collaboratively with producers, suppliers, resource providers, funders, and like-minded groups and organizations.  The approach is one of helping and sharing.  It also sometimes means stepping back and re-assessing.  

The farm’s educational and apprentice programs are an example here.  In 2019, April and her team paused the apprentice program to realign.”   They relaunched in 2020 with an additional weekend intensive track based on applicant requests. Koenig thinks this may be a great time to move more of the training resources online and offer more virtual and technology-enabled distance formats, to reach more aspiring farmers.

Sprouting Farms seems unafraid of experimentation.  With partners in Mingo County, they are helping develop an aquaponics facility in Kermit, West Virginia.  Koenig sees this as one more opportunity to increase and diversify food supply while creating new jobs.  The aquaponics system is nearly complete and just getting its first batches of sustainably farm-raised Tilapia into the nursery. 

It was heartening to speak with April, to learn some of the ways that her organization and others are working to tackle food insecurity while creating jobs and better livelihoods for farmers and food-businesses across West Virginia.   Her approach may sound naïve to some, but its value is reinforced by her effectiveness.  The work is both rewarding and difficult, but  “…If it was easy, someone else would have already done it.”