- Crop Production: agroforestry
- Education and Training: decision support system
The Reading the Woods project will enable the utilization of West Virginia’s forests to enhance the state’s agricultural economy. It will support small farms through enhancing capacity of private and public Agricultural Service Providers (ASPs) in the Mountain State. This project will first create an economic, environmental, and regulatory planning tool titled “Reading the Woods.” Project staff will then test and refine resource materials throughout the duration of the project. ASPs will first gain exposure to the broader concept of Forest Farming—the process of cultivating high-value crops within a managed woodlot. They will then be trained to effectively utilize the Reading the Woods guide and resource tools.
Problem and Justification
Rugged geography, limited connectivity, and lack of accessible markets and processing opportunities perpetuate an ongoing economic decline in agricultural production. West Virginia lost 2,000 farms of its more than 20,000 predominately small farms, between 2007 and 2012 (USDA, 2014). The 2012 Census of Agriculture reported that 12,650 of these farms had net losses or zero gain. The majority of West Virginia farm operators (57%) already have a primary occupation other than farming (NASS 2017).
Need exists for enhanced agricultural revenue opportunities throughout West Virginia. According to the state’s 2020 Strategic Plan, “West Virginia’s agricultural land has relatively low value, with an average of $2,750 per acre.” This is largely due to the high prioritization placed on large grazing areas, which does not account for the commercial value of forestlands. “Three in four West Virginia farms sell less than $10,000 annually”. West Virginia has the highest proportion of any state in which the non-seasonal agricultural labor force is comprised of farm proprietors. This project will help farmers who currently have vast swaths of land that is forested and under utilized for Agriculture.
Solution and Approach
Reading the Woods will equip Agricultural Service Providers (ASPs) with the skills and the knowledge to help farmers and forest landowners access opportunities for forest farming income on their lands. The tool will be developed in cooperation with ASPs and farmers to ensure that it is appropriate. ASPs will gain an economic framework for combining sustainable and responsible woodlot management of tree stands with the cultivation and harvesting of native understory woodland plants known as Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs).
Reading the Woods will enable ASPs to help landowners and farmers to determine NTFP opportunities, conduct resource assessments, determine resource management plans, discover production and harvesting techniques/technologies, assess market opportunities, and develop plans for conservation and sustainable production. The project will result in a robust digital resource guide that will include economic costs and environmental impact calculators. Farmers and landowners can diversify their income by bolstering the returns of existing agribusinesses.
Performance targets from proposal:
“Reading the Woods” will adapt the current SARE-based “Reading the Farm” tool to provide agricultural service providers with a multi-seasonal diversification planning tool for non-timber forest products in West Virginia forests and applicable throughout the Central Appalachian region; the tool will be utilized by at least 25 agricultural and forest service providers who fully complete the training and impact at least 75 farmers.