Farm-To-Table Dining: The Roots of Southern WV’s Local FlavorApril 24, 2015
The portrait of a traditional mountain meal would not be complete without rolling farmland visible through the kitchen window.
The food culture across the country may have shifted to corporate production, but small farmers in West Virginia are still growing. And not just growing crops. They’re also growing relationships with local chefs and restaurants, and growing opportunities for their communities to appreciate the care and quality of a farm-fresh meal.
From the Farm // Growing Tradition
The evidence of our continued commitment to farming is blanketed all across the state’s pastoral landscape.
Driving through rural regions like the countryside of Monroe County, there aren’t flashy Taco Bell signs to lure you off the country roads, or even stoplights to impede your journey back into the mountain scenery, which is covered with tenderly manicured farms. They envelop you entirely, coming together to etch an homage to the slow and steady lifestyle that’s passed so many of us by. The landscape quietly paints a humble, powerful picture of why this idyllic, small-town agrarian culture still endures.
It can seem esoteric, maybe eccentric. But it’s not an unusual sight to those of us raised in the mountain hills. 95% of farms in West Virginia are family-owned— the highest percentage in the country.
One such small farm is Swift Level Land & Cattle in Greenbrier County, with an agricultural history stretching back to the 1700s. It’s been passed down through 5 generations of owner Jennifer “Tootie” Jones’s family.
“I have waited my entire life to own and farm this land, and I do so lovingly, because I know it like my own skin, maybe better,” Tootie said.
She has stayed true to the farm’s tradition, but that doesn’t mean she’s following the same playbook as her forefathers. The day-to-day of the farm has completely transformed from what it was years ago.
“I enjoy seeing this land repair after years of tilling, fertilizers, over grazing, over use,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong, I feel every person who has had the opportunity to farm this land has done their best in what they felt was the right way. Time changes much, and we have learned what the effects of modern farming over the past 100 years have had on our lands.”
Although, some things do stay the same. They still steer the cattle along the hills peacefully and calmly from horseback, as has been done for generations. If the cows show signs of stress, that’s a signal that it’s time to quit for the day.
“I have waited my entire life to own and farm this land, and I do so lovingly, because I know it like my own skin, maybe better.”
“You get to know your cattle pretty well if you pay attention to them. They, like us humans, are all different,” she said. “The cattle look for me. I am food, abundant rich grass in season and fuel in winter. The one who busts ice in winter so they can replenish their much-needed hydration after a below-zero night. At times I have to remember who is working for who.”
The cows take longer to fatten up when they graze freely on the grasses, but the quality of meat is much higher. It benefits the land, too. Tootie carefully plans their path to help replenish soil, streams and greenery. It’s an intimate process.
“My type of pasture management requires spending time on the land, looking at the soil, testing the soil, looking at the grass and understanding where nature is today,” she said. “In other words, I might as well throw the calendar out the window in terms of forage management. It is in the hands of nature and my ability to pay attention and to respond.”
This is the nature of small farms. It takes skill and agility to manage. But Tootie is sure doing something right, because the land’s toughest critics have given their approval: the natural wildlife have returned to the farm as the quality has become more welcoming.
To the Negotiation Table // Growing Business
Because of the unique challenges to small farming, the iconic straw hat no longer fits over all the duties. It takes many hats to help the business thrive. Atop the tough and vigilant duties of tending to her herd, Tootie is an entrepreneur. She’s a marketer. And she’s a liaison between her craft and her community.
Selling to shops, individuals and restaurants alike, Tootie keeps her customers diverse, so she isn’t reliant on just one base of business. Because restaurants buy a high volume, a partnership can be ideal. But, despite the rich wealth of local farms here in Southern West Virginia, many of the restaurants don’t source much of their food locally. And that’s because it’s not an easy arrangement to refine.
“I have to be flexible and so do (restaurant owners),” Tootie said. “It is a challenge with restaurants on how to work with local meat purveyors. The standby for years has been boxed meat that is stored in great volume, and is ordered and delivered once a week. Local meat producers have a bit more of a challenge.”
All the special care she takes with her cattle makes a difference in her timeline, and nature’s whims can throw off her schedule, so restaurants must be able to work around any last-second changes. There are other expectations, too.
“I will pull product from a restaurant that is not ready to work with certain cuts,” Tootie said. “I know how my beef tastes. What I am most interested in is ‘what does the customer tell us?’ If the customer is not pleased with their purchase, we are all accountable.”
A winning partnership has developed with popular Lewisburg restaurant Stardust Cafe, owned by Sparrow Huffman. Sparrow said the relationship has literally taken years to form.
“I think that’s why we’re so successful, because it’s not just commercial food. We think people seek us out for it.”
“It’s what makes local food hard,” Sparrow said. “We work on a small capital base, and can’t afford to have waste. The farmers can’t all grow to the level we need, but we’re really proud of where we are with that now. It’s a lot of communication, and a lot of back-and-forth.”
And of course, a menu is made of more than meats. Like Tootie, Sparrow maintains a delicate juggling act. Gathering all her ingredients is a complex process, pulling from a mix of suppliers to keep up with her restaurant’s demand. In addition to the ongoing agreements with farms like Swift Level and Vernal Vibe Rise, it means trips to the farmer’s market twice every week to buy out the entire stock of certain fruits and veggies from several stands. She supplements the market buys with a weekly delivery from the Monroe Farm Market, which helps sell and distribute goods from more than 25 farms.
Stardust even adds its own homegrown ingredients to the mix, including herbs cultivated in flower boxes at the restaurant, and a plot in the Lewisburg community garden.
Local sourcing is complicated on both ends. And newer restaurants like The Dish Cafe in Daniels, WV, are still in the beginning stages.
Devin Billeter, the operating partner at The Dish, said part of the issue is not having the time to build intricate relationships like Stardust has. Despite that, more than half of their menu is sourced locally.
“When we speak of local, that can be a radius of 500 miles,” he said. Some items, like lettuce and potatoes, aren’t easily available when they aren’t in season. But they do look close by when they can. Their trout, for example, is raised just 15 miles away from the restaurant.
To the Dining Table // Growing Appreciation
Once restaurants have finally stitched together their complicated collection of local suppliers, the payoff for both the owners and the customers is immense. Both restaurants said they were seeing returns where it counts— with customer appreciation.
“I think my generation in particular is going back to the way our grandparents were raised,” Sparrow said. “They’re interested in authenticity in general, and want to see things made in front of them. They want to know where things come from, and feel that attachment to it, not just think that it’s all made in China or a factory farm.”
Stardust’s investment in local foods sprouted from a simple idea that shapes every dish they make.
“When we first opened 10 years ago, the concept was to cook the way we cook at home,” Sparrow said. “I think that’s why we’re so successful, because it’s not just commercial food. We think people seek us out for it.”
The local cuisine does add a certain distinct flair to the dining scene, with freshly crafted artworks of bright, natural colors. The dishes flaunt their superiority from the plate before a fork even descends upon them. And that’s just a tease of the taste to come.
“It tastes so fresh compared to something that’s been sitting around or genetically modified,” Devin said. “There’s no comparison whatsoever. It makes a world of difference. The flavors are much more vibrant. A lot of times, people think natural means bland and plain, but there’s not an item on our menu that isn’t made up of layers of flavor, or that doesn’t make people’s eyes light up.”
For Devin and the other owners at The Dish, it isn’t just about business, or even taste. It’s about bringing health-conscious dining to the community. They’ll proudly tell you about the health benefits of their dishes. They strive to use 100% organic flavors and cut out genetically modified ingredients when they can.
“The body absorbs the nutrients more with local, natural foods,” he said. “For the customers, they feel good when they walk out our door. They never feel bloated after eating our food. We don’t get that result.”
"People think natural means bland and plain, but there’s not an item on our menu that isn’t made up of layers of flavor, or that doesn’t make people’s eyes light up.”
He said with problems like celiac disease becoming a conversation topic nationwide, the push for whole foods has intensified.
“I think people were starting to understand the effects of genetically modified foods,” he said. “They’re seeing it internally, because they’re having issues. Studies are showing us what we need to do. I think the public is starting to understand that the possibility to do better is there.”
The feel-good food is definitely producing positive results for The Dish so far, with some of the most vocal support coming from visitors in town for rating trips. Devin said where most of the visitors come from, local sourcing is more common, and more expected than it is in his area.
Unlike Stardust in downtown Lewisburg, which is closely surrounded by several other restaurants that serve local cuisine, The Dish is one of only a few in its county. Which seems odd at first glance, considering The Dish sits just outside of Beckley, the commercial capital of Southern West Virginia, which is bustling with far more restaurants than Lewisburg.
“We’re behind the curve that has hit nationally with healthier foods,” Devin said. “I think it’s traditionally a meat and potato and barbecue area. But I think we are starting to turn people in the right direction.”
To the Community and Beyond // Growing Opportunity
Sparrow credits Lewisburg’s more marked progress in the local food movement to a broader factor: the town has learned the economic benefit of local dining and local farming.
“If people spend locally, then most likely, and hopefully, that person will turn around and spend it in the community,” Sparrow said. “I think that’s why Lewisburg is so successful. There’s a big commitment to to reinvesting in the local community.”
Studies have confirmed that when a dollar is spent locally, it is more likely to stay in the community the next time it gets spent, too. It keeps the funds within the community, boosting more local businesses as it’s passed along.
The final sale of the product isn’t even the only investment to consider. There’s also the impact from the farmers spending locally on tools and supplies to maintain their businesses. As the chair of the WV Food and Farm Coalition Meat Working Group, Tootie is helping with a study into exactly how much money is kept local by supporting West Virginia farms.
“Most farmers are more aware of care and quality before they look at the dollars,” she said. “I would like to see that on an equal par. Knowing the cost of my product has given me so much more control of my business. Not nature, mind you. But the end, I can control.”
If we can quantify the economic boost of local farms, will other towns follow in Lewisburg’s footsteps?
If so, they’ll have access to a growing base of tools to help them succeed. The study is one small portion of the coalition’s “Road Map for the Food Economy,” which is working on multiple fronts to grow West Virginia’s local food movement.
“Support your local businesses and support the infrastructure that is part of farming and local foods,” Tootie urged. “It is a guaranteed future for WV.”
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