W.Va. Farms Stay Alive by Diversifying Their Operations

9/21/2013 7:00 AM
By Marla Pisciotta West Virginia Correspondent

LEETOWN, W.Va. — Farmers in Jefferson County, W.Va., are adapting and making changes to sustain their farmland and way of life.

For decades, the Tabb family at Vinemont in Leetown, W.Va., were dairy farmers. Early in the 1990s, Lyle “Cam” Tabb and his wife, Jane, began composting for added income and to naturally fertilize the land.

Lyle Tabb has been composting ever since.

The composting business includes three trucks with roll-off boxes that are taken to horse farms where manure is loaded and then brought back for composting.

Trucks also pick up pallets and lumber from construction sites. The material is then ground down — a double-magnet system takes out the nails — and the end product is sold for animal bedding.

Additional boxes are taken to sites where there is tree and stump clearing going on. That material is added to the compost windrows.

“We realized that there is a tremendous amount of dirt on the stumps,” Jane Tabb said. “The dirt is sifted for top soil and sold. Nothing comes off our farm, just the stumps.”

The Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Martinsburg, W.Va., works with the Tabbs to supply composting materials as well.

“They came up with a way to freeze leftovers not eaten. We pick that up every two weeks and add it to the hot compost pile,” Jane Tabb said. “The VA Center actually got an award for doing that.”

She said the farm can set its own price for top soil and compost.

“We weren’t able to do that in the milking business,” Jane Tabb said.

The Lyle C. Tabb Compost Farm is always looking for ways to recycle.

“For us it’s been a good way to diversify our cash flow,” Jane Tabb said.

The Tabb family decided to phase out of the dairy business about 15 years ago and have moved into raising beef.

In 2007, Jane Tabb, through a series of circumstances, started the Fresh Feast on the Farm.

“My brother-in-law, Bob Tabb, was a delegate and a group of people were invited to his farm. We wanted to serve the folks a meal from local products,” she said.

Following the initial gathering, Jane Tabb figured out how to start a quasi-catering business.

She went through the Health Department and the West Virginia Department of Agriculture.

“I went for a specialty crop grant from the Department of Agriculture. The money was available to me for two years to be spent for promotion,” she said.

The funding enabled her to set up a website and advertise. Fresh Feast on the Farm is a dining experience highlighting locally produced foods. Each dining event is held at a different farm in Jefferson County.

Jane Tabb said she often uses beef from Vinemont, hogs from Bob Gruber in Middleway, W.Va., and all kinds of side dishes from Bill Grantham at Tudor Hall, also in Middleway.

“The last dinner was at Southwood Springs Farms, Kearneysville, W.Va. We made sweet cherry slush, cold cherry soup, toss garden salad, which we got from the New Hope Farm in Summit Point, beef burgundy from our Vinemont farm, new potatoes from Jim Huyette at the Sunnyside Farms in Charles Town, and squash tarts, also from Huyette,” she said.

Sometimes the farms donate the foods. But most times Jane Tabb said she pays for it. She makes breads and desserts and the eggs come from Tudor Hall and fresh berries from Kilmers Farm Market in Inwood, Berkeley County.

Jane Tabb said the feast events are a way to link the public with agriculture.

Her next event is scheduled for Oct. 26 at the historic Clay Hill Farm in Ranson, W.Va.

Twin Ridge Upland Bird Farm is located in Shenandoah Junction, Jefferson County. The 300-acre farm was originally an apple orchard but has downsized to make room for a hunting experience.

Twin Ridge offers the hunt of quail, pheasant and other birds in a natural setting, with guides and hunting dogs.

Other farmers in Jefferson County use parts of their farmland to grow and sell Christmas trees, and some lease out their barns for special occasions.

One farmer has even started an excavation business.

Shepherd Ogden is head of the Jefferson County Agriculture Development Office. Ogden said a recent series of public meetings were held to help shed light on what farming could like in the county by 2035.

“All that attended the meetings were conventional commodity grain farmers. One woman teaches agriculture at the high school. The results were amazing,” Ogden said. “We all decided that farms would be smaller and crops would be more diverse. And, crops would have more value.”

It’s not just in Jefferson County where farmers have started diversifying their operations. In Wiley Ford, Mineral County, Ronnie and Tina Higson have owned and operated the Higson’s Farm since 1986.

Their mainstay is fresh produce, with corn, berries, tomatoes, cantaloupe, onion, peppers, cucumbers and various kinds of beans.

Higson’s produce is sold at several farmers markets in the area including markets in Cumberland and Frostburg, Md.

Diversification is the name of the game come the first Sunday in October. That’s when the Higson’s Farm celebrates its annual fall festival.

“On a good day we get over 1,000 people at the festival,” Tina Higson said.

The festival offers hay rides for $1 per person. A local 4-H provides pony rides. Vendors sell crafts and a variety of foods.

Pumpkins, gourds, hay bales and corn stalks are available for purchase.

The Higsons offer church, school and community field trips as well.

Following a hayride through the fields each child receives his or her own pumpkin to take home with them.

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