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Uprooting and Blooming

Sprouting Farms worker picks tomatos

A worker picks tomatoes at Sprouting Farms in Talcott, WV.

Story by Taylor K. Ambrose/WVU Center of Resilient Communities

Photographs by Raymond Thompson Jr./WVU Center for Resilient Communities

Produce and homemade goods have replaced pamphlets and maps at the Alderson Visitors Center in Greenbrier County. Each food item has a traceable map back to a locally sourced farm; each bite is a taste of the region and the local food economy.

The mini-market is a product of the Turnrow Appalachian Food Collective, a food aggregator that is committed to creating a more equitable, sustainable, and healthy food system in West Virginia through supporting local farmers and connecting them to markets and buyers. The Alderson mini-market opened March 28th, at a time when many food services were closing their doors due to COVID-19, and in a community where most people drive 25 minutes to shop for groceries.

WVU Alumna, Beth Ryan, 2017, MA Geography, is the manager of the Alderson market and native to the area. She has seen firsthand how the sustenance provisioning of a community contributes to more than just physical well-being. Having a reliable location to purchase healthy foods provides a sense of stability in times of profound uncertainty.

“People were saying things like, ‘There’s no potatoes, I can’t find potatoes anywhere and you have them. How do you have them?’ There are items that grocery stores are running out of and we happen to have a supplier,” said Ryan.

Empty retail shelves during the early days of the stay-at-home order have been a catalyst for consumers to reevaluate the national food system and the priorities in their purchases. The question Ryan was asked as to how a small market has a commodity that a major retailer does not, is digging up major flaws in our current food system: a system that sacrifices resiliency for acute efficiency.

The Turnrow delivery truck stops at the Alderson markert

The Turnrow delivery truck makes a stop at the Alderson market.

“The system was always vulnerable,” Ryan said. The corporate food system maximizes profit through specialization of one product in large volumes. When restaurants and schools closed, there was no way to repackage or reroute these large volumes of food. Farmers had no choice but to turn over produce back into the soil or pour milk down the drain. Meanwhile, food bank lines wrap around the street all over the country.

Towards a Cooperative Food Economy

The Turnrow Collective was already aware of the poor soil our food system was growing in before COVID-19 exposed its root system. At the collective’s founding in 2018, they had a vision to offer an alternative , one that tied West Virginia’s food economy into national and global movements for food sovereignty and food justice.

“We share a different value system and I think that completely differentiates us from the global food market, there’s no democracy in it at all,” said Fritz Boettner, director of Turnrow.

West Virginians are known for coming together to help one another in both celebrations and hardships. The credence of Turnrow is that small, local farms can make a big dent in the local food economy if they band together and unite their assets. A single farm may not have the resources or volume to sell wholesale to restaurants, caterers, or schools. But Turnrow creates contracts with multiple farmers to advance wholesale marketing while maintaining the values, quality, and flexibility of small farms. This method removes the profit-extracting middleman between farmers and food markets by prioritizing both the value of the farmer’s work and the quality and affordability for consumers.

Fritz Boettner gives instructions during Turnow cross docking

Fritz Boettner,Food System DevelopmentDirector atWVU Center for Resilient Communities, gives delivery drivers instructions during cross-docking in Weston, WV.

“It’s decentralizing our food system to be equitable for farmers and consumers and not capitalizing on margins for short term gains,” Boettner said.

The wholesale market has been the meat and potatoes of Turnrow since its inception. The pop-up markets and online farmer’s market were smaller parts of the business up until this year. The online farmer’s market gives a platform for any producer to sell their product year round. Turnrow compiles orders from multiple farms and delivers it to one of their 10 designated pick-up locations.

Lacy Davidson Ferguson of Elmcrest Farm in Wayne County said that the online market provides a service some farmers wouldn’t have access toon their own. “A real benefit to us is that we can know ahead of time what product is going to sell and know exactly how much of it to drop off. We’re not sitting somewhere hoping that someone stops by and purchases our product like you would at a traditional farmer’s market,” Davidson Ferguson said.

Kelsey Abad, the sales manager at Turnrow, said that participants in the online market were appreciative but few. Though they hoped to expand the online market at the start of the year, focus was primarily on wholesale where business was experiencing steady growth. “We were thinking that wholesale was gonna pick up over the course of the year and that the retail market would sort of plateau out,” Abad said.

The Pivot

COVID-19 upended these plans. Just like the global food system, the local food system lost most of their wholesale buyers when restaurants, schools and other food service sector institutions closed. Unlike dominant food supply chains, Turnrow was able to quickly pivot their focus and reorganize their supply chains to meet consumers where they were at..

“The fact that Turnrow was, within a week, able to switch over from food service sales to grocery sales is sort of a miracle,” said Joey Aloi, a producer for Turnrow out of KISRA’s Paradise Farms in Kanawha County.

An order of tomatoes is collected during Turnrow's cross docking in Weston, WV.

An order of tomatoes is picked upduring Turnrow's cross-docking in Weston, WV.

The collective was able to move their supply to online retail, pop-up markets, and other grocers. While it indeed seemed miraculous, this was in fact the outcome of prior planning and committed work. Within a month, online sales increased by 400%. New customers poured in as uncertainty over traditional food supply increased. Purchases grew from 50 orders a week to 200 hundred orders a week; new distribution sites and methods were implemented; the Alderson mini-market opened their doors.

The rapid growth of the local food sales stood out against the backdrop of food system vulnerability. Abad explained the urgency and determination of the team following the stay-at-home order on March 24th.

“Within 24 hours [of the order], we had alerted all of our producers, we had placed orders for gloves and masks and hand sanitizers, we had alerted all of our customers, we had talked to our accountants about how this was going to shift around our funding throughout the year. It was like, mass communication from everyone on the team. And then it was that for three months straight,” Abad said.

Boettner added that prior investment in the management system contributed to the successful transition in the influx of customers online. Last year, they set goals for exponential growth in every area at Turnrow, but didn’t expect it to be realized so suddenly.

“We buckled down hard well before the pandemic, getting our operation to a scalable manner. So it didn’t matter if we were selling 1,000 dollars a week or 50,000 dollars a week, our system could process that. So, that was set up and immediately tested,” he said.

A Shift in Customers Priorities

The exponential growth has begun to level out since the early months of the pandemic, but many are hopeful that the demonstration of resiliency in the local food system has contributed to a paradigm shift in consumers who might see the value of supporting local farms for community food security. The flexibility of the local food system makes it much more resilient to shocks. Since smaller-scale food production is not specialized to one specific product or market, supply chains are more adaptable thanks in large part to coordination by people committed to food access.

Bag of lettuce on box

Food is packed up during Turnrow's cross-docking in Weston, WV.

“It’s interesting to see how the pendulum has swung from convenience being the highest priority to like, no, I care where it’s coming from a little more, and I care how it was harvested and I care how it’s been packaged and handled. And that’s become a little higher on people’s priority list than just price and convenience,” Abad said.

Even if the global food system finds itself back in pre-pandemic status quo, this will not be the last disruption. With the climate crisis looming, and predicted effects on farming due to drought, pests and natural disasters, investing in a food system that works, that people have control over and that provides adequate food when we need it most is crucial. Turnrow is committed to providing an alternative to the corporate system that invests in West Virginia’s local economy and improves the well-being of rural communities across the state.

“Our motive is not profit oriented, it’s to move people’s product and give people access to food,” Boettner said. “Plain and simple.” Because if the last few months have shown us anything, it’s that the problem is not if we have food, it’s how to get the food to the people. We don’t have to go far.