HUNTINGTON — Area agriculture organizations are helping local gardeners with growing food on their property.
The Guyan Conservation District serves Boone, Cabell, Lincoln, Logan, Mingo and Wayne counties by encouraging experienced and budding farmers. The district partners with other agencies like the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and the West Virginia Conservation Agency to work with private landowners on a voluntary basis.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began last year, there’s been a renewed interest in gardening at home. Ken Brown, the Cabell County district supervisor with the Guyan Conservation District, said more people who live in the district want to learn how to can foods and produce vegetables at home, akin to victory gardens of the World War II era.
Caitlin Black, a conservation specialist with the West Virginia Conservation Agency, said her own family is among those who started raising a garden again. She said they previously had a garden for a number of years, but fell out of the practice. After a shortage of fresh food, they took gardening up again.
“There’s a lot of families out there that’s doing that,” Black said. “They want to know where their food’s coming from. That’s the big thing. They want to know if it’s safe. We want to know how it’s grown and more and more people are starting to do it again.”
When someone reaches out for support, there’s a general conversation about the level of interest from the gardener, what kind of plants they want to grow and what their land is like, said Corine Powell, a district conservationist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Then, the agencies figure out how they can help.
“They can call us up, and we can just come out and talk with them about their objectives on their land and what they’d like to do and how we can help them improve their natural resources and their farming on their property,” Powell said.
Some of the programs are cost-assistance reimbursement, meaning there is a possibility of financial help for local gardeners for different kinds of farming projects, Powell said. If the groups don’t have a program that fits a project, they may know of another organization that could help.
Getting help through the local agricultural districts connects gardeners to a community of horticulturalists. They often share ideas, advice or projects with each other. The groups host a couple field days a year for gardeners. Bill Stewart, the chairman of the Guyan Conservation District and Wayne County representative, said he often trades tips with other gardeners on Facebook or by phone.
Sarah Haddox is a local mother of four. The family started growing a small garden in their backyard earlier this year. Haddox said she tries to grow plants that aren’t usually available at a farmers market or food that she knows her kids enjoy, like peas or strawberries.
“It feels good to just come out and kind of think ‘Well, what am I going to have to eat?’ and just come out here and pick like whatever looks like its kind of ready. We pick it and bring it inside and cook with it,” Haddox said.
The garden brings the whole family together. Haddox said each child helps out. Other bonuses include spending time outdoors and getting exercise without really feeling like it’s a chore.
She reached out to the agencies after seeing a friend’s social media post about the Guyan Conservation District. Now, she has a couple of raised beds in her garden.
Haddox is considering adding a high tunnel to her back yard — a structure that’s like a greenhouse in that plants can be sheltered inside of it to grow. The big advantage of a high tunnel is expanding a growing season, so more food can be grown year-round. Other bonuses are being able to control irrigation to water plants as needed and dissuade deer from munching on plants.
About 20 to 30 requests are made to build a high tunnel a year, Powell said. Her group received more requests last year during COVID-19 through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
Powell said high tunnels are for gardeners who want to grow as much as possible or looking to sell some products. She said the top crops in this area for high tunnels are beans, tomatoes and cucumbers.
To get a conversation started about personal gardens, contact the Guyan Conservation District at 304-528-5718, contact Black at 304-549-1739 or call the local USDA NRCS office at 304-208-8395. District supervisors that work in each county can also be contacted for more information.
McKenna Horsley is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. Follow her on Twitter @Mckennahorsley.