Eastern fuels demand for local food through ag entrepreneurship and CSA programs

The Agriculture Innovation Program at Eastern West Virginia Community and Technical College is fueling demand for locally grown foods through expansion of the Potomac Highland Producers community supported monthly food box and experiential learning opportunities for aspiring ag entrepreneurs.

In October 2021, Eastern Ag Innovation launched the first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box in the Potomac Highlands Region to increase access to local foods. The initiative, known as the Potomac Highlands Producers, has grown to include 25 local producers from the region, all of whose products are periodically featured in the monthly box available for purchase online.

“CSA programs provide an avenue for the direct sale of local products,” said Ag Innovation Program Coordinator Maya Paul. “Not only is it healthier to eat fresh foods that are produced in our region, but it also benefits the success of the rural economy, which relies heavily on agriculture and agritourism and helps the local farmers succeed.”

Members of the Potomac Highlands Producers at the Producer Appreciation Luncheon held earlier this month.

Consisting of Grant, Hampshire, Hardy, Mineral, Pendleton and Tucker Counties—the Potomac Highlands Region of West Virginia is the largest agricultural region in the state and provides access to a large volume of wholesale goods ranging from a variety of meat and dairy products to a diverse range of fresh fruits and vegetables, and dry goods like jams and jellies, teas and coffees, and other seasonally available items.

The products in each box include a rotating mixture of nearly a dozen different seasonal goods from local producers, allowing customers the opportunity to sample products and connect with a variety of different businesses in the region.

“We have had almost 80 percent of our box buyers become repeat customers,” said Paul. “The same folks have been consistently supporting the beginning and we recently doubled the quantity of boxes we sell to meet consumer demands.”

The boxes are currently available for pick-up out of the Potomac Highlands Producer’s location on Eastern’s Main Campus in Moorefield. Additional drop-off locations have been established in Tucker County, and the Potomac Highlands Producers are looking to expand their distribution network to more counties in the region.

A recent $124,065 grant awarded by the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation will help expand the capacity of the Potomac Highlands Producers and establish the Agriculture Growth through Entrepreneurship Experience (AGEE) Program.

The AGEE Program will provide a one-year paid agricultural experiential learning program to up to six students within the Potomac Highlands Region. Participants can range in age from high school juniors and seniors to college students, veterans or individuals studying career pivots.

“The new program will allow students to strengthen the Potomac Highland Producers monthly box program and learn more about where their food comes from, including the agricultural operations behind each product,” said Eastern’s Dean of Advancement and Continuing Education Dr. Megan Webb.

Those admitted to the Food Agriculture Entrepreneur Program will receive on-the-job training while supporting the growth of the Potomac Highland Producer’s monthly community supported agriculture box program.

Students will gain business and management skills through customer interaction, financial management and wholesome food responsibility. Accepted AGEE students will earn $12 per hour for up to 40 hours of service to their experiential learning program with the Potomac Highlands Producers Program. They will also receive free access to up to four agriculture workforce microcredentials including: farm business management, agribusiness diversification and value adding, horticulture management Systems, and livestock management systems offered by Eastern Ag Innovation and partners.

Students will also have their tuition waived for at least one three credit academic course and receive mentorship from the Agribusiness Coach, David Workman, while pursuing their agricultural entrepreneurial development.

At the end of the program, which is now open for enrollment, successful student completers will receive a $700 stipend and be recognized during the 2024 Eastern Foundation Farm to Table fundraising dinner.

“Many thanks to the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation for supporting our institution and growth in agricultural experiential learning programs that offer real-world experience to our students and enhance their access to affordable and accessible education,” said Webb.

“The Benedum Foundation is excited about this opportunity to expand agricultural entrepreneurship and also meet a local need for more fresh food options,” said Bill Woodrum, senior program officer at the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation. “ Eastern is a great example of an institution being responsive to their local community and helping build capacity for their future growth.”

To learn more about Agriculture Innovation academic and workforce development training programs including the AGEE program visit, easternwv.edu/ag-innovation/ or email aginnovation@easternwv.edu