Aldona Bird, Columns/Opinion

Preston Growers Co-Op provides local produce to area

Last session, a bill was introduced to the legislature requiring state institutions to buy at least 20 percent fresh produce from in-state farms. It didn’t make it out of the finance committee.

But Preston County is a step ahead of our state government.

A few years ago, five farmers joined forces.
“We thought that we would come together to sell our products,” Darwin Stemple, one of the founding members of the Preston Growers Co-Op, said.
Through partnership, the small-scale farmers  benefited personally and helped the community by providing farm fresh food available in large enough quantities for the county’s schools to purchase.
A couple years ago, before the formation of the Preston Growers Co-Op, I visited the Stemple Brothers Farm — I wrote a column about their efforts to diversify the farm. The cattle farming their father practiced and taught them no longer provided enough income to make small-scale agriculture sustainable.
When Darwin recently told me about the progress of the co-op, I was  excited on behalf of Stemple Brothers Farm, other area farms and the local food movement.
Darwin said the co-op (which since expanded) offers seasonal produce, meats, eggs, maple syrup, flour, dried beans and more.

“Now we are doing frozen vegetables,” Darwin said, in order to extend the seasonal availability of locally produced food.
Darwin said initially agreeing on bylaws and working through the legalities was challenging, but the farm made it through. Farms must be Good Agriculture Practice (GAP) certified to be accepted as members to ensure they are providing safely grown, harvested and packed foods.
This group of farmers is not only selling to the Preston County public school, but also to schools in Tucker County and to the Mountaineer Challenge Academy.
“We don’t have a centralized distribution center,” Darwin said. Instead, each farmer informs the co-op’s food coordinator weekly of available products. The coordinator then distributes the list to customers, who place orders. Each farmer delivers his or her portion of the order, fresh from the farm.
While they are considering establishing a distribution center, Darwin said he would love to be able to sell directly from the farm, which would cut down on delivery time, giving him more hours to work the farm and produce more food.
Darwin said he hopes local restaurants will begin wanting to source local ingredients as well. When I chatted with Darwin, he said the co-op online store was just about ready to offer products to individual buyers — a prospect I found particularly exciting.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the farmers market. But I know a lot of people, people who would love to buy local food but can’t make it to markets because of busy schedules. Ordering from the co-op would offer more flexibility for shoppers and more sales for farmers — a win-win if I ever heard one.
Each year, the local farmers are learning more about the community’s food needs. Darwin said his farm had a hard time marketing lettuce. But when it began offering bags of pre-chopped salad greens, it couldn’t keep up with the demand.

“We are still diversifying, trying to stay ahead,” Darwin said. Personally, I think the Preston Growers Co-Op is bringing our beautiful county ahead, and I hope our government representatives take note of our community and the supply and demand of local food.