ENTREPRENEURS

Source: The Herald-Dispatch

HUNTINGTON — The potential benefits of Huntington’s new fresh market, The Wild Ramp, are many, said Gail Patton, one of the nonprofit’s board members.

The food market will be open Wednesdays through Saturdays at Heritage Station, providing a year-round venue for farmers and other producers to get their products into the hands of local shoppers hungry for fresh food.

The hope is that the farmers will benefit by having a year-round place to sell their products, which may encourage them to produce more, Patton said. Plus, they will have a group to handle the sale of their products while they get back to work on the farm.

“The bottom line is the farmers should make more money,” said Patton, executive director of Unlimited Future Inc.

Shoppers will benefit with quality food products “that have not traveled a week in a truck to get here,” she said.

“Things taste better and are better for you if they are fresher,” Patton said, adding that the meat sold there will be mostly grass-fed, which is leaner, and will have no hormones or antibiotics.

“Consumers will be able to rely on the quality of products because we will do farm visits to get to know our farmers and their production methods and these practices will be posted with the products,” she said.

She hopes the community as a whole will benefit because as neighbors support their neighbors, saying “this will deepen the relationship between the city and the surrounding rural areas.

“We have farmers who now feel that they are part of the exciting things that are happening in Huntington and we will soon have consumers who feel like they are part of the food chain,” Patton said. “Restaurants are eager to purchase locally produced food to use in their menus because the chefs know that using local ingredients is a way to improve their menus.”

Though still working out the final details of officially opening, the market had a soft opening earlier this month and sold $2,500 in its first week — a sign of success for an operation that is serving as a model in West Virginia for this format of local market.

Three Marshall University students — Lauren Kemp, Christa Galvin and Kelly Wiley — helped get the idea rolling when they focused a school project on creating a local food hub.

Now The Wild Ramp is a nonprofit organization with a nine-member board, including producers, restaurateurs, consumers and Patton, whose organization aims to support small businesses.

Board members are Patton, Stephanie Appleton, Stacy Garrett, Katharine Lea, Simone Kompanek, Stacy McChesney, Kim Baker, Shelly Keeney and Dominique Wong.

“This group of women has decided to leave their egos at the door and roll up their sleeves to get the market going,” Patton said. “I have never worked with a more cohesive group. All of us are terribly busy, but we have found a way to stay in touch even when we can’t have regular meetings. We have a Google project site where we post announcements, discussions and documents. Many of our decisions have been made online.”

The group is a nonprofit, but the farmers can earn a profit, said Appleton, who is a farmer with Mil-Ton Farms in Ona. Producers/farmers sell goods on consignment there, earning 90 percent of the profits, she said. She said about 17 producers are members so far, selling fruits, vegetables, herbs, eggs, beef, poultry, pork, milk, cheese, locally roasted coffee, jellies, sauces and soap. Not all the products are certified organic, but there will be information from each farmer available about how each product is raised or made.

“I’m very excited,” said Appleton, who raises chickens, pigs, cows and crops. “I’m really looking forward to it because farmers and consumers are not always available at the same time in the same place.”

Shoppers can’t always make it to the farmers market early on a Saturday morning, and farmers are so busy farming that it’s hard to get their products into the shoppers’ hands at the right time, she said.

“This is going to help us connect with people much easier,” Appleton said, adding that right now, the group is rounding up goods from all throughout West Virginia, and otherwise from a 250-mile radius.

There are all types of farmers involved, Patton said.

“Some paid their producer fees before we even were sure where the store would be,” she said. “Some invested in the market with no-interest loans. Some donated equipment. Some worked on demolition and remodeling, and yes, some are skeptical and waiting to see how it goes.”

In terms of what shoppers can expect to find when visiting The Wild Ramp — for which the name was chosen through on online contest — it will depend on the season, Patton said.

“You won’t find as much fresh produce in the winter,” she said. “But we have lots of quality meat free of antibiotics or hormones that will be available all winter. We will have milk and eggs and cheese all year round. We will have canned and dried and frozen produce and herbs along with sauces, jams and jellies. The potential is so huge. We found ramp crackers, ramp salsa, and ramp jam so far. Who knows what we will find next?”

The format of the store borrowed some inspiration from a group called Local Roots in Wooster, Ohio. The folks there were “more than generous” with their time in helping the Huntington group get itself established basically within 31/2 months, Patton said.

She thinks this format could be easily replicated, and “We are more than willing pay it forward and share our story with other communities who would like to have fresh local food available in a retail style store,” Patton said.

What’s going on here is exciting stuff, said Savanna Lyons, program manager for the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition, which works to link local food to local consumers. There are a couple other successful programs in West Virginia, but not entirely the same concept, she said. Philippi has a faith-based market of a similar kind, and Monroe County has a program in which customers order local food and have it delivered.

“We’re very excited to see them choose a retail model,” she said. “Among the cities in West Virginia, Huntington is a leader. …This is neat because it feels entrepreneurial and there’s a lot of entrepreneurial spirit in this group.”

A good system for farmers is to bring goods to a place where someone will sell it for them, Lyons said, and something like this will hopefully give the farmers an outlet to become better farmers.

“I feel like this is a community of consumers who organized to get what they want, which is really powerful,” she said.

A grand opening for The Wild Ramp will be held in August. For more information, visit www.wildramp.com, find it on Facebook or call 304-523-7267(RAMP).