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Deep Roots, High Tunnels

Photos Provided The most recent three generations of growers are working the same Brooke County farm where ancestors were producing grain and sheep as far back as the 1700s. Pictured (left to right) are Charlie Farris, Grady Farris, Mylah Farris, Cathy Hervey, Fred Hervey and Britney Hervey-Farris of Family Roots Farm.

WELLSBURG — When Britney Hervey-Farris and her husband Charlie Farris began farming a decade ago, some things were a mystery. Big things, like how to grow crops and how to run a business.

One thing was clear, however. The Hervey family has managed to work and live on the same parcel of land for seven generations spread over about 250 years. And, invaluably, they kept a record along the way.

“We do have it pretty well documented, but it’s changed a lot over the years,” Hervey-Farris said of the details about how the land was used.

In the 1700s and 1800s, for example, the Herveys were raising sheep and grains, which she said was typical for Brook County at the time. But, beginning in about 1900, the operation switched to solely dairy until the 1960s. After that, the farm fluctuated between dairy and beef.

That much known, when the couple decided to return to Brooke County and raise an eighth generation on the farm, they opted to shift again with the times. While parts of the 200-acre site are still used for beef by other family members, the pair opted to tap into an ever-increasing demand for fresh, local produce.

Family Roots Farm was born with an acre of field-grown sweet corn in 2012.

“We were selling it. We thought we were so big time,” Hervey-Farris laughed, the couple’s son Grady, 4, and daughter, Mylah, 2, chattering happily in the background. “We put it on a stand in Wellsburg.”

Customers wanted all the corn and more — green beans and tomatoes, to be specific. The pair pivoted quickly, tapping into advice from Lewis Jett, an associate professor and extension horticulture specialist at West Virginia University in Morgantown.

Fast forward to 2022, the couple is now farming year round — actively working about 40 acres in a multitude of ways.

There are field-grown crops — strawberries, sweet corn and potatoes. There are the 800 maple tree taps and a solar-powered sugar shack that are anticipated to produce as much as 200 gallons of syrup this spring.

There are also high tunnels — inexpensive, greenhouse-inspired growing areas that cover soil-grown crops with hoop structures and a layer of polyethylene, plastic or fabric. The couple has two — one 30 by 60 feet and the other 30 by 120 feet. They’d like to add a third.

“We produce significantly more through high tunnels than all of our field crops together,” Hervey-Farris said. “There’s zero waste because we have that controlled environment.”

The control is multi-faceted, she said. Produce-eating wildlife can’t get in. Crop pests such as aphids can often be controlled with chemical-free methods like ladybugs.

And, the vagaries of weather are mitigated. Specifically, irrigation is accomplished with a drip system that works with the land’s natural slope rather than leaving high ground too dry and allowing too much water to pool in low-lying areas.

The high tunnels are also warm. Warm enough that Hervey-Farris will be harvesting spring crops like lettuce, sugar snap peas, carrots and kale by late April. There will be strawberries by Mother’s Day and tomatoes and peppers in early June.

IN THE ZONE

Deep red tomatoes in June? Hervey-Farris said customers at the four farmers markets they once served were surprised, not understanding that high tunnels were turning their Brooke County farm into a tiny slice of Georgia in terms of growing zones.

“People would say, ‘You’re not growing these in Brooke County,'” she said of realizing there would need to be another side to their style of farming — education and tourism. “We started having open houses, people coming out.”

Later came “u-pick” strawberry fields and on-site meals and events – all of which are listed on Family Roots Farm’s Facebook page.

Soon, Hervey-Farris said, they had built a customer base so solid they needed to attend only one market — Brooke County Farmers Market in Wellsburg. Any extra produce and crops produced outside the outdoor market’s season are sold through Grow Ohio Valley’s Public Market in Wheeling, she said.

Hervey-Farris said she has grown to love the educational part of the operation, even teaching a class at Wheeling Country Day School.

Adding up all the components, she noted they have already met a critical goal.

“We just continued to grow with our business,” she reflected of keeping the land alive for future generations in general and their nuclear family in specific. “It was our goal that one of us would be a full-time farmer and, in 2020, that happened. It was me.”

ROOM FOR MORE

It also needs to be some other people, both Hervey-Farris and WVU’s Jett said.

“There’s just incredible demand for local food,” said Jett, adding that he is available as a resource to anyone considering high tunnel farming and other types of homegrown horticulture. “We just need more producers across the state, growing all these special crops — everything from apples to zucchini.

“There’s not enough farmers to have competition,” Jett continued of the business climate, particularly if farmers are willing to grow in high tunnels all year long. “It’s intensive food production on small acreage … That’s a good thing for Appalachia and West Virginia in particular.”

Hervey-Farris said Family Roots Farm welcomes other growers to the area. Their operation is about at its maximum even though they are considering a third high tunnel, chickens and whatever other out-of-the-box opportunities might come along, she said.

An example of the latter? They may someday expand the small pig herd that helps earn its keep by rooting up some 10,000 spent strawberry plants at the end of the field-growing season, turning over the soil with snout power. (The pigs are currently harvested as thank you’s to family, friends and neighbors she said are critical to the operation’s success.)

“It’s not possible to meet the demand by ourselves,” Hervey-Farris said, noting her husband also works as an electrician. “It’s going to take us all to cover local food demand.”

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