By Jim Workman, West Virginia Press Association
An increased role of agriculture in West Virginia could serve as a solution to the state’s economic diversity problem, officials said last Monday during an agriculture subcommittee meeting Monday on Senate Bill 375, relating to farmers markets.
The bill would transfer rules and regulations of farmers markets from the Department of Health and Human Resources to the Department of Agriculture. It would also change permitting processes for vendors and markets.
Crescent Gallagher, director of communications and legislative liaison for the West Virginia, said the department wants to see small farmers grow their operations.
“That would happen best under the department of agriculture, where the expertise exists, where the issues are better understood” he said. “We want to reduce burdens and regulations on the farmers.
“Farmers markets are the front line of people sampling products, trying things for the first time,” said Gallagher. “A lot of our state’s bigger vendors started at farmers markets and grew their operations from those successes.”
Agriculture and Rural Development committee Chair Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, and Vice Chair Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, asked counsel to update language in the bill as discussed Monday, for a follow-up meeting sometime this week.
“This has been a process going on for three or four years now,” Gallagher explained. “We think we’ll be able to cross the finish line this (legislative session).”
In 2017, the agriculture department opened a new division, Agriculture Business Development. It is responsible for the oversight of Farmers’ market development, Agri-Business development, Veterans to Agriculture programs development, Food distribution program, West Virginia Senior Farmers’ market nutrition program, International and domestic marketing programming and the GHP/GAP audit program
Parween Mascari, executive director of the West Virginia Farmers Market Association said there is an effort to encourage farmers markets to move to a consignment model, where they’re open year-round and feature a variety of products.
“This bill would help that because it would open up the micro-processing industry in West Virginia,” she explained. “It would allow farmers to take food from their farms and make them into products in their home kitchens, products they could also sell in their farmers markets.
“We see our farmers markets as small business incubators,” she added. “It’s an economic growth and job creation opportunity.”
Mascari said the state of Kentucky has a similar bill on its books, with over 1,000 microprocessors taking advantage of the industry opportunities.
“We hope to open up that market here in West Virginia, to grow our farmers markets,” she said.
Food “deserts” that exist in rural counties of West Virginia may benefit from a more robust farmers market industry, Mascari added.
“We believe this bill would elongate the farmers market season, but also provide fresher, healthier options for local consumers who live in what we call food deserts,” she said. “They don’t have local grocery stores.
“We hope by transferring some of the regulatory authority over to the department of agriculture – people who know farming, it will really help us grow our markets.
“The ag department is putting (farmers market) at the forefront of its mission to help farmers grow,” Mascari added. “That’s what our farmers markets are about as well.”