Our facebook page has changed! Please visit us at: https://www.facebook.com/FCCAA.org/
Fayette County Community Action Agency and the Republic Food Enterprise Center, along with several entities across the county and state lines have joined together in developing an agricultural and food network.
Fayette County Community Action Agency and the Republic Food Enterprise Center, along with several entities across the county and state lines, have joined together in developing an agricultural and food network.
The local organizations were the recent recipients of a $1.75 million POWER grant through the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) to develop a local food shed.
Much like a watershed area gathers the flow from rivers, streams and other water sources into a common outlet, the food shed will bring together farmers, entrepreneurs, community and economic development representatives, educational institutions and others to grow the region's agriculture and food industry, according to the recipients.
"Southwestern Pennsylvania is blessed with an abundance of prime farmland, fresh water, centers of innovation and technology, and good access to market," said state Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding, following the announcement of the grant award. "These are prime assets for developing new agricultural clusters in local sheep, lamb and goats, poultry and produce.
"This initiative supports Gov. (Tom) Wolf's commitment to expand employment opportunities for former coal workers and others looking for new careers in agriculture."
James Stark, community action chief executive officer, said discussions began nearly 18 months ago with various agencies representing both Fayette and Greene counties, in response to an ARC request for proposals to mitigate the decline in the number of jobs available in the coal industry.
"When you look at the economies of Fayette and Greene (counties), particularly Greene County, the closing of the mines have had a major impact on the employment and economy of the area," he said.
Tapping into the region's agricultural industry was embraced by all the participating entities, including the state agriculture department, that wants a more robust industry in the western portion of the state, added Stark.
The first phase is to develop a regional agricultural advisory council to aid the local farming community, reach out to former coal workers that would consider transitioning in to the agriculture and food industry, develop innovative ideas to expand the sale of locally grown food products.
One of the panels' tasks will be to examine what is being produced within the food shed and what is being consumed locally and within a 200-mile radius from the region - metropolitan areas that include Washington, D.C., Columbus and Cleveland, Ohio, Erie and New York.
Junk said in New York, for example, nearly 2.5 billion tons of food is imported, including large quantities of lamb and goat that come from other countries.
If more lamb and goat was produced regionally, the southwestern Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia food shed could enter that market, he added.
"We are not seeking to supply the entire market, just a portion of it," said Junk, adding that it is less than a day's drive to the metropolitan areas. "We are producing a good product, raised by family farmers and not carrying all the chemicals or commercial fertilizers. "We would not drive quantity, but instead, quality."
According to agriculture department statistics, Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia have a long history of production of sheep and lambs. In 2012, Pennsylvania ranked 17th in the U.S., with Washington County being the number one producer of sheep and lambs in the state.
The plan also includes raising the production of turkeys and chickens, to meet new market demands for organic grown poultry.
While California produces much of the nation's food supply, Junk and Stark said that with the area's fresh water supply, open space to develop more farms and the major interstates to deliver the produce, meat and other products, the three neighboring states are poised to become key players.
"The consumer has the right to know where their food comes from," said Junk, adding that retailers offer little details as to where their meat products or produce originate." (The local production) will allow consumers to trace the food back to the farmer."
Another goal of the agriculture council is to aid farmers to expand the life of their product.
For example, a head of cabbage or bushel of tomatoes that might not be fitting for the farmer's market and get tossed over the hillside, could instead be used for sauerkraut or coleslaw, or in a spaghetti sauce produced by a local entrepreneur.
"(The goals) are everything from looking at the dirt to the kitchen table," said Junk. "We can impact different parts of the food chain, including the farmers' production and the entrepreneur that needs product. "It gives them another market and not lose the complete value of that product."
Although funding will not be funneled to any private entity, the Republic Food Enterprise plans to purchase equipment, such as a flash freezing unit and thermal food processor to aid the farmer or entrepreneur to expand the life of their product or add new products to the market.
"We have a client that needs a big smoker," said Junk. "It may be to our advantage to buy it, and he can rent it.
"Community Action has given us the support and flexibility to look at these types of issues."
A new initiative to be incorporated is aquaponics, a self-watering, closed-loop system that uses fish effluent and plants in a complementing, recirculating environment to grow vegetables at an accelerated rate.
"It is really exciting," said Junk of the modified greenhouse. "We will be raising tilapia and prawns and leafy green vegetables like lettuce year-round."
As niche markets continue to open opportunities for the region's producers, they will be offered business planning, technical training, contractual assistance and access to financial aid to improve and grow their businesses.
In addition to the state Department of Agriculture, several agencies are working with Community Action and the Republic Food Enterprise Center, including Penn State Extension, West Virginia University, Davis College of Agriculture and West Virginia Extension.
Also, the Greene County Department of Economic Development, Fayette County Redevelopment Authority, Bridgeway Capital and Fayette County Cultural Trust.
"We are going back to our roots," said Junk. "This area was the beginning of the frontier, and we were very rich in agricultural production in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
"This is a very exciting."
On Tuesday, Redding will join with Junk and Stark, along with other community members and officials, to kick-off the program.
The program will begin at 12:30 p.m. and be held at the Republic Food Enterprise Center, located at 40 Legion St., Republic.
For more information about the food shed program, email Junk at firstname.lastname@example.org or text him at 724-317-9134.