With one in seven people in West Virginia struggling with hunger, a West Virginia University collaboration is working to overcome these challenges by going straight to the source – the state’s own bounty.
Turnrow Appalachian Farm Collective is a food hub that aggregates, sells and distributes locally grown and produced products across West Virginia. It is an initiative in WVU’s Center for Resilient Communities, which conducts community-based action research addressing Appalachia’s most pressing challenges.
The Turnrow name refers to the piece of land left at the edge of a field when a farmer turns around from plowing.
“It’s coming back to the revitalization of West Virginia’s economy through agriculture. It represents the turning around of things,” said Fritz Boettner (BSR Recreation Parks and Management, ’98 and MS Safety and Environmental Management, ’02), Turnrow’s founder and director of the CRC’s Food System Development Lab. “Our hope was that the name Turnrow could mean something outside Appalachia. We wanted a brand that was very regional but also wouldn’t look out of place elsewhere. We wanted a name that means something here and on a shelf in Massachusetts, for example.”
Composed of 10 nonprofit organizations plus 70 farms and counting, the hub partners with small family farms and customers alike to help them grow and afford food, working to make the state’s food system more efficient, accessible and sustainable. Customers range from regional grocery stores and food assistance programs to households around the state.
“It’s resources; it's land; it's access to markets. It’s coordinated production planning and coordinated production in general through a collaborative network of farmers, businesses and consumers,” Boettner said. “There are so many people who want it to work, but it's just a question of how do you get them all to work together so we can all move forward in a unified way.”
Challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially many of the supply chain issues that led to empty grocery store shelves in early 2020, illuminated the insecurities of the food system in the state and nationwide. Prior to the pandemic, a successful revenue week for Turnrow was about $5,000 to $6,000. Since then, weekly sales have increased to $35,000 to $45,000.
“Our sales shot through the roof the minute that COVID-19 happened because the stores went empty, restaurants closed and major corporate distribution channels dried up because plants were being shut down. A thousand things happened, and all of a sudden, we need food to live,” Boettner said. “We need to be able to access food locally. If we don't invest in it now through initiatives like Turnrow, COVID-19 is not the last time something like this is going to happen. From a pandemic point of view, it is going to happen again. We need to have a secure food system to accommodate it.”
Turnrow is part of several food access initiatives around the state, supplying organizations like Mountaineer Food Bank and the WVU Family Nutrition and Education program for the state’s Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program. Those partnerships total approximately 30 percent of Turnrow’s annual revenue.
“They prioritize their health programs and food access programs with produce from Turnrow because we're growing what they need,” Boettner said. “If we want to help our citizens eat healthier, we need to give them the freshest, most local food. And that builds the economy.”
Turnrow is also working to establish West Virginia as a state where farming can be a practical career while also making food affordable and encouraging residents to eat healthier.
“We are trying to get to a place where the simple goal of becoming a farmer, making a living growing food for people, can be a realistic dream. Farmers produce food that keeps people alive. We will always need food. But in our society, we just tend to push it to the side. We don't think about it. This can be such an economic opportunity for West Virginia because we do have access to land. But the infrastructure needs to begin to be built to make that happen.”
– Fritz Boettner
“We are trying to get to a place where the simple goal of becoming a farmer, making a living growing food for people, can be a realistic dream. Farmers produce food that keeps people alive. We will always need food. But in our society, we just tend to push it to the side. We don't think about it,” Boettner said. “This can be such an economic opportunity for West Virginia because we do have access to land. But the infrastructure needs to begin to be built to make that happen.”
After interning with WVU’s Food Justice Lab as an undergraduate student, alumnus Lucas Hilsbos (BA Geography, ’18) took a full-time job at Sprouting Farms, one of Turnrow’s member farms.
“The positivity folks have for local food and small farming is great and encouraging, but they are often not exposed to the most difficult aspects of food system development. We are all still learning how to engage with each other and create coherent action around broadly shared values,” said Hilsbos, a Fairmont native. “I have seen the global food system from a lot of perspectives and now understand the challenge in connecting the broad social energy behind the various local, sustainable and ethical movements in food with effective action.”
As a graduate research assistant with Turnrow and online farms market manager for Sprouting Farms, geography master’s student Valerie Slone is putting her research into action.
“I’m working on grant materials, networking with individuals embedded in the food system and facilitating community food projects on the ground. I also engage in the operations and customer service aspects of the work,” Slone said. “Turnrow is poised to change the food system in West Virginia by giving producers a chance at being viable businesses and contributing to food access programs. We are building on the foundations of collective collaboration and cooperation. This is the key to effective food system work.”
Turnrow also hopes to build community through these efforts.
“This approach to food could fix a lot of our society’s social ills. Regardless of your political views on things, people need to eat. I've never heard anyone say, ‘I’m never going to buy tomatoes from the guy next door.’ I ask which tomato do you want to buy, this one from Florida or Mexico, or this one from your neighbor, which one are you going to buy? It’s always your neighbor’s,” Boettner said. “If we can agree on that, regardless of anything else, there's that common denominator that is hopeful. It's hard sometimes to feel hopeful right now. This transcends politics because it goes back to a cultural, biological need. That is the impact I want to see.”
To learn more about Turnrow or get involved in the collective, visit turnrowfarms.org.
“If you want to be a farmer, if you want to do the hard work, there's a pathway for you to do that. And if you're a consumer and you want local food, regardless of your income, there's a pathway for that to happen,” Boettner said. “If some shock happens, whether environmentally or economically, you will still be able to access food. To me, we’ve got a long way to go, but that’s our vision. It's a collective vision around food sovereignty.”