Rural Innovation forum offers exchange of ideas, information

Posted: March 12, 2013

The Winchester Star

WINCHESTER — Finding the right crop, adding entertainment and growing crops in unusual places were some of the suggestions 182 participants took away from the ninth annual Forum for Rural Innovation Friday at the Best Western Lee-Jackson Inn and Conference Center restaurant on Millwood Avenue.

Jean Hagen of Purcellville was back for her second year to learn as much as possible about making money with her 24-acre landholding.

“I’m starting a business,” said Hagen, who enjoyed the financial panel. Four representatives from financial companies explained the criteria their organizations use to loan money to agribusinesses.

Yao Afantchao, an ethnic crop development specialist from the University of the District of Columbia, said he had found plenty of interest in ethnic crops in Washington, D.C., from those who were interested in buying the special produce.

To prove there’s a market, Afantchao grew specific crops familiar in Africa and took them to African embassies in the district. He sold everything he had in his truck.

Mike Harman, an extension agent for Agriculture and Natural Resources with the West Virginia University Extension Service, said there is definitely a market for ethnic and specialty produce in the local area.

In Berkeley and Jefferson counties in West Virginia and Frederick, Clarke and Loudoun counties in Virginia, there are more than 162,000 people who were born outside the United States, he said.

According to Afantchao, people from other areas want to eat foods from their cultures because it “keeps them tied together.”

He likened it to the Peace Corps volunteers he once trained wishing for a cold Coke in their overseas surroundings, he explained.

There are hundreds of vegetables, fruits and nuts that are favorites in other countries that can be grown on the East Coast, said Harman.

And, he added, there are plenty of university studies listing various ethnic groups and the types of produce from their countries that will grow here.

“There are lots of resources,” Harman said, to assist any “visionary” farmer who wants to serve this market.

Afantchao’s colleague, Calvin Lewis of the Community Resource and Economic Development Department of the University of the District of Columbia, urged local growers to make use of the Market Maker, a free Internet site that identifies food markets, growers and distributors and helps customers find food outlets and products.

The site is an attempt by a partnership of land grant institutions and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop a supply chain for local food, Lewis said.

The web site can be reached through www.marketmaker.uiuc.edu.

There was also information on growing hops, which takes a lot of hand work but can produce a crop which sells for $15 a pound. An acre can grow 1,000 pounds of hops.

Speaker Dale Didion explained his latest venture, vertical growing. He is producing a crop using trays and grow lights and shelving in a former warehouse.

Organizer Gary Hornbaker, the Rural Resources Coordinator for Loudoun County, said the forum offers participants a chance to hear how others are making a success of agriculture or rural business.

The ideas and concepts are there to be “tweaked,” he said, to help others succeed with their own rural businesses.

“There’s a lot of networking,” he said of the gathering, which drew participants from northern Virginia and south to Rockingham County.

“We may not have the answer for everyone,” Hornbaker said, but the forum always offers plenty of fresh ideas.

— Contact Val Van Meter at vvanmeter@winchesterstar.com