To help decrease the spread of COVID-19, residents across the country, and here in West Virginia, are being asked to stay home, except to get the essentials such as food and medicine. Although the National Grocers Association assures there’s not a food shortage in the U.S., some store shelves are sparse.
As spring unfolds across the Mountain State, the pandemic is driving an influx of West Virginians back to the garden and to some of the state’s local farmers.
WVU Extension Service has seen firsthand the growing interest in planting and tending a garden. The WVU Extension Family Nutrition program runs an online gardening program called Grow This. It's supported by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program from the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.
Interested participants fill out an online survey and get free seeds for four crops. This year the crops are microgreens, peas, tomatoes and butternut squash. The program is open to anyone in West Virginia and, in recent years, a few hundred people have participated.
“This year, within three days of posting the first post for the year, we had over 1,000 people sign up, and we now have over 5,000,” said Kristin McCartney, a public health specialist with the Extension Service.
In the month since the program went live, more than 25,000 people have requested seeds. McCartney said staff is working from home to fulfill the requests, targeting those most in need.
McCartney’s first post included an image of a victory garden — the war-time morale-booster that encouraged people to plant food at home. In this time of COVID-19, she said the idea of growing more food seems to have resonated with many West Virignians.
“This is the time to pull together as a community and do what we can for ourselves and other people around us,” she said. “Part of that right now is just staying home, and another part is ensuring that our food supplies are secure and people can be fed.”
That’s a role some of the state’s farmers are taking on, according to Fritz Boettner, who heads the Turnrow Appalachian Food Collective located in southern West Virginia. The organization serves as a food hub and helps get produce from dozens of small growers into the hands of schools, restaurants and people across central Appalachia.
Some of the biggest markets for Turnrow growers included restaurants and schools, both of which are largely closed due to the coronavirus. That sent some farmers scrambling to find buyers for truckloads of salad greens, for example.
But during this pandemic, Boettner said a new market is flourishing — regular West Virignians seeking fresh produce. Turnrow has seen record sales from individuals placing orders through their online marketplace.
He thinks it highlights the vital role small farmers play in West Virginia. West Virginia is home to about 20,000 farms, and almost all of them are considered small. Ninety-three percent are family-owned, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“We need to think about food security and our food system in West Virginia and central Appalachia will help get us through this.” he said “And I think people are wanting to invest in that.”