DUNLOW, W.Va. - In just nine months, the Wayne County Farmer's Co-Op has gone from an idea to what is likely the largest co-op in West Virginia with more than 100 members.

"From its inception, the organization has devoted itself to making agriculture a viable economic opportunity for the people of Wayne County in response to the financial hardship and unemployment facing the region," said member Ron Thompson.

Cooperatives are businesses owned and controlled by the people who use them; agricultural co-ops allow farmers to pool their resources in certain areas of activity.

Effective June 11, 2015, the West Virginia Legislature expanded the state's producer cooperative statute to include all food- and farm-related businesses, not just producers, to form as cooperative businesses. SB352 expanded the agriculture code that pertains to producer cooperatives to include all businesses that relate to foods and beverages, arts and crafts, woodworking and recycling, composting and repurposing of materials.

"I think with 100 members now, it is safe to say they are the largest in the state," said Brandon Nida, director of programs at the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition in Fayetteville. "Right now, there are only six in the state."

Nida says he expects that number to grow because co-ops provide high-quality services.

"Co-ops help to spur activity and value in local economies because they are controlled by the members who use their services, rather than by outside investors," he said. "It's a good way of keeping and building wealth in a community."

Nida says co-ops incentivize business expansion by distributing profits to members based on their use of the co-op's services, rather than the amount that they've invested.

"The more that members use the co-op's services, the more profit they receive," he said. "Co-ops allow farmers to pool their resources and typically result in higher productivity."

During the Wayne group's monthly meeting on Nov. 19 at the Dunlow Community Center, co-op president Pat Fluty informed members that the group received $25,000 from an anonymous donor in New Jersey who was struck by the dedication they showed to the project.

Thompson said the donor also purchased two inoculation guns to expand the co-op's mushroom-growing operation, which has been its most popular aspect so far.

"Several members have entered the shiitake mushroom-growing business, and member Benny Dillon now has more than 1,000 logs prepared to produce mushrooms next year," he said.

Thompson said the donation money will be used to fund members' projects, such as low tunnel construction, animal exchanges and adding mushroom-growing supplies.

"Another possibility is an evaporator, which will be necessary to produce maple syrup on a financially viable scale," Thompson said.

The co-op is constantly on the lookout for new markets in which to sell Wayne County produce, and is working on developing them in New Jersey with a restaurant chain, Thompson said.

"The organization is working to begin distributing produce through 'Refresh Appalachia,' the agricultural arm of Coalfield Development," he said.

Savannah Lyons of Refresh Appalachia recently discussed with the group the potential of working with the co-op to distribute food products throughout southern West Virginia. Her company has a facility in the old Corbin factory in Westmoreland that could be utilized to store and ship products, Thompson said.

Lauren Kemp of The Wild Ramp told members of possible products that would be good sellers for Wayne County's farmers; among them were honey and maple syrup.

"Currently, The Wild Ramp gets its maple syrup from farmers in Jefferson County," Thompson said.

"However, they like to get products from as close to Huntington as possible."

Thompson says other projects include working to get an agriculture processing facility in the old Fort Gay High School building.

He also said that co-op member and Economic Development Authority Associate Director Park Ferguson is working with the Wayne County Board of Education to expand the farm-to-school program.

The next meeting of the Wayne County Farmer's Co-Op is scheduled for noon Saturday, Dec. 3, at the Dunlow Community Center.

"All Wayne County farmers are encouraged to join," Thompson said.

For more information, call Pat Fluty at 304-385-4445.

Follow reporter Fred Pace at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD.

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