Supporting Local Food and Farmers in West Virginia’s Greenbrier Valley
By Jennifer “Tootie” Jones and Mary Oldham // August 14, 2017
A shared commitment to supporting local food and farmers brought Jennifer “Tootie” Jones and our Natural Capital Investment Fund’s (NCIF)Value Chain Cluster Initiative program (VC2) together. VC2 provides business coaching to food and farm businesses, and Tootie is the owner of Swift Level Land and Cattle, located in the heart of the Greenbrier Valley of West Virginia. Tootie recently sat down with VC2’s regional coordinator Mary Oldham to discuss the growth of her business, and the important role entrepreneurs play in the local food system and economy. Mary: How did you get into cattle farming? And how does cattle farming fit into the multifaceted operation at Swift Level Farm?
Tootie: I grew up with farms on both sides of my family that were very active in the cattle business, and it was just our way of life.
But today raising cattle to sell all grass finished beef is only one of several facets of my business operating under Swift Level Land and Cattle. I also sell pasture-raised pork and lamb. We run educational programs on topics related to farming and conservation. I also host events at the farm, including weddings, corporate retreats, farm to table dinners, and fundraisers for our community.
Mary: How has your business grown or changed?
Tootie: It has changed tremendously, and most of the changes are tied to recognizing the connection between land and food. In 1994, my business was operating 125-mile, five-day horse rides through the mountains. Then I took up the family tradition of raising cattle, yet this time, for beef.
That component has now grown way beyond my storage and sales capacity here on the farm property, consequently I recently acquired a location to open Swift Level Fine Meats where we will sell our all grass finished beef along with other locally sourced meats from pasture-based farms that meet my standard and protocol. I couldn’t have done this without a loan from The Conservation Fund’s Natural Capital Investment Fund (NCIF) and the help of VC2. Beyond realizing my personal dream, the opening of our new retail store is a really positive step for my business and for local meat producing farms looking to expand their operations.
Mary: Tell us more about your relationship with The Conservation Fund, NCIF and VC2.
Tootie: Working with The Conversation Fund and NCIF is much more than just loan money. Through VC2 I’ve received support services that help with business plans, accounting, reports, and technical support with QuickBooks that prepared me to receive NCIF financing—technical support that a lot of farmers don’t have. Along the way I developed a deep working relationship with VC2.
My business was the first cattle loan for NCIF, and it was difficult to find an accountant that understood the difference between a bale of hay and sack of seeds. It was new for all of us when we started working together, and I feel like we really grew together in identifying how to perfect the system. And these relationships have led to me becoming a consultant for other food and agriculture business people, because I had to learn so much for my own business. So it’s through that experience and a really wonderful working relationship that we can, for example, find the right accountants for a brewery versus a farm with cattle, or find the right computer system that can generate the necessary reports that allow a farmer to make informed business decisions. And I think VC2 has just been incredibly vital in that process.
Mary: You mentioned that you offer support to others based on what you’ve learned, and that’s just so critical. Please tell me more about your involvement in the regional efforts to strengthen the local food economy.
We host a lot of educational programs here, with the farm acting as a living classroom for learning about land and water use, carbon sequestration, soil improvement and sustainable farming methods. It’s a lot easier to talk about dung beetles under a pound of manure on the farm than it is in a sterile classroom in a hotel! Working together with VC2 and other organizations, we’ve been able to obtain the funding to bring in experts to train others on how to build their businesses.
Mary: NCIF and VC2 also work with other small businesses in the Greenbrier Valley to provide technical assistance and connect businesses along the regional food chain. Why is having a strong network of local food and agriculture businesses important in our area? What kind of impact do farms and agritourism have on the community?
Tootie: Agri-tourism is vitally important to create the bond of nature to humans if we are to survive in the growing world.Agriculture based enterprises create jobs, pay taxes, and encourage tourism. And that tourism helps encourage spending that blends into many other businesses—like advertising, marketing, accounting, banking, markets, retail shops, restaurants—just an endless list of support for any business. It provides employment and a tax base that West Virginia really needs.
The restaurants here serving food from local farms attract people from far and wide. Couples hosting weddings on my farm spend, on average, $33,000 with local vendors such as bakeries, hair stylists, tent rentals, caterers, etc. That amount does not include hotel rooms, rental cars, or the rental income for Swift Level.
Another example is Hawk Knob Cidery and Mead, a local business dedicated to producing a locally farmed and produced beverage that both Swift Level Farm and NCIF/VC2 have the pleasure of working with. Look at the system it takes to support what they’re doing—from their wooden whiskey barrels, to their bottling process, to transporting and storing their products, bringing people in for tastings, and all the marketing.
There’s a lot that goes into food and agriculture businesses that helps strengthen the economy that is often overlooked. I believe that we need to measure economic impact with data collection, and we’re getting closer to that. Demonstrating the impact can help affect policies and legislation to further strengthen and build these types of businesses.
Mary: What is something that might surprise us about your work?
Tootie: That it bothers me to kill animals. That’s the tough part of it, and there’s no way around it. I honor my animals by donating meat to Manna Meal, an organization in Charleston, West Virginia, that serves meals to people who are truly hungry.
Mary: Why is it important for people in all parts of the food system to be conservation-minded and to value the resources that are providing their food?
Tootie: I believe we’re all responsible for our environment. If you’re eating anything, you’re part of it. If you’re not growing it, you’re consuming it and driving why it’s being produced. My hope is for people to feel responsible for our planet and hopefully commit themselves and become more conservation-minded and less wasteful. We have a lot of room to improve, so we might as well try!
MORE ABOUT THE VALUE CHAIN CLUSTER (VC2) INITIATIVE VC2 provides hands-on business development and coaching services to strengthen local food and farm businesses interested in expanding and seizing new opportunities. The core strategy of the program is to build resilient food and farm businesses that create real jobs throughout West Virginia by growing, buying, moving and consuming local foods.
VC2 has been supported with federal funding from the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Economic Development Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Housing Administration.
VC2 works with groups and regional organizations located in four multi-county clusters, covering 17 counties or about a third of West Virginia. They accomplish this work by collaborating with partners and local lead organizations to advance a network of businesses, experts, and services providers.
Since their business is working with people, they’ve intentionally created an organization that is flexible and can respond to almost any business need. They grant technical assistance, specifically services/ expertise via staff coaches or contracted experts, and access to capital, while fostering new sales connections and building a supportive network of these businesses across the state.
Each staff member works part-time for the Value Chain Cluster Initiative. They spend the other portion of their time working for their own or other’s food and farm business. This explains why they’re so passionate about the value of local food and agriculture, creating jobs, and improving health in West Virginia.