BELLAIRE - "I think selling to people is my favorite part of what I do. I like the personal contact, and with each person there's an opportunity to educate someone about why local produce is more nutritious." Susan West, farmer and director of the Ohio Valley Farmers Market, is sitting in an old fashioned swing at Lone Oak Farms, 123 acres high atop a ridge outside of Neffs discussing her farm, family and community.
She has just finished picking zucchini and cucumbers for the next morning's farmers market. The earth is dry and crunchy from lack of rain. Threatening clouds loom with badly needed moisture, but they veer off to the south before reaching the ridge.
West wasn't always a farmer. Born and raised in Bellaire, her grandfather was an Italian immigrant. Her husband Bill's family had this farm, purchased from his parents in 1975. "I have to give Bill's mother credit," West says. "His father was in construction, and she had her dream home. One day he announced that he'd bought a farm, and they were moving. She had nine kids and packed everything up to come out here."
Susan West, farmer and director of the Ohio Valley Farmers Market, enjoys connecting with her customers and the community at the Ohio Valley Farmers Market twice a week. Her desire to see the local area thrive makes her a great choice for this month’s Neighbor honor.
When Susan and Bill got married, he decided he'd like to raise a few beef cattle and some hay, so they purchased the family farm. Now their daughter, Kendra, and her husband are raising their family on a few of these same acres. The Wests also have two sons, Stephen in Columbus and Tyler, a student at Bellaire High School. Susan says she began doing a little farming in the 1980's, but responsibilities of a growing family took up much of her time. In 2002, she got serious about producing food for sale and took a few things to a farmers market.
A few years later, the farmers market in St. Clairsville was winding down after 26 years, and West thought a change of venue would give the concept a boost. Now the Bellaire location on Saturday mornings and the new Bel-Mor Market location on Tuesday afternoons are gaining a following. West now grows and sells 15 kinds of garlic, 12 kinds of tomatoes, eight different peppers, six types of onions and various squash, melons, beans and cucumbers, all certified "Naturally Grown."
Vegetables that are "different" catch her eye, things like round squash and oregano eggplant. Her husband still has some beef cattle, and she has laying hens. Though she admits that most of her woes are weather-related and living with rain every fifth day would be "a perfect world," West's concerns about local farming have more to do with the long-range outlook than a five-day forecast.
"The farming population is aging," she says. "I've tried to recruit younger farmers growing vegetables and produce, so that people will support them. With the oil and gas industry arriving, there's less and less serious interest in farming. Also, people don't realize that every dollar spent at the local farmers market circulates in this area seven times because local farmers support other local businesses. Unfortunately 'big box' has become the culture of our area."
A love for her community and desire to preserve what's good about it led to West's involvement with other organizations. The Ohio Valley Riverfront Development Committee was born after West attended a meeting at the OSU Extension office. "Here was this woman, Dottie Milton from Powhatan Point, talking about revitalizing the riverfront towns, building trails and making this a destination," West remembers. It was what West wanted for the area, too. The OVRDC was formed and is now working on the Heritage Trail project, which will incorporate a recreational trail with history and art along the riverfront.
"Everything here has to come in small steps," she notes. "It's trying to get people to invest in the future and take risks. We have to get past our differences and think on a regional level and let people know about our resources like the river and our history. What's good for one community can be good for others."
Years ago, her daughter came home from Key Ridge elementary school asking for a bluebird box. The school hosted an annual lecture and program by the late Bill Davis on the benefits of the brightly colored birds. West learned about the program, which installed bluebird houses locally, and Lone Oak Farm has become home to several bluebird families. "The boxes are best installed in a garden," West explains. "Bluebirds only eat insects, unlike other birds that will eat seeds or suet, so having them around is a natural form of pest control." Now she's a member of the Ohio Bluebird Society and teaches programs herself.
The Wests also own two Haflinger draft horses, which, Susan acknowledges, haven't been put to use on the farm yet. They have been trained, though, through another organization that the family supports, Tillers International. This agency, based in Michigan, trains farmers in the United States and impoverished countries around the world how to use low-capital, sustainable farming practices.
Toward what is West working? "I'd like to reach the point of being profitable, so Bill can retire [from his job as Operations Director at Union Local School District.]" She adds, "I'll also be working on the school levy project. Support builds community. People have to want to see success. When people support local entities, everyone prospers."
She hopes to eventually see the farmers market expand and find a location for a year-round market like those in other areas. Reminiscing about the Bellaire area in which her parents and she grew up and the sense of history quickly being lost, West says, "I long to see my community thrive as it used to. It's not going to be the same, but it can be better than it is now. We're running out of time before there's nothing left to hold onto. I want it for my grandkids and other kids living here."
The Ohio Valley Farmers Market in Bellaire is located at Union and 32nd Sts. from 9 a.m. until noon on Saturdays through Oct. 27. The OVFM in Belmont is located just off of Interstate 70 exit 208 at the Bel-Mor Market and Marathon gas parking lot from 3 to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays through Oct. 30.
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