Looking for Local in a Rural Food Desert: Flying W Farms

Flying W’s beef comes from their farm without hormones or antibiotics.

I’d heard about Flying  W Farms in Burlington, West Virginia from my parents, who regularly bought butchered meat from them over the years. However, I’d never been to their store.  This summer, I got that chance when my dad suddenly decided he wanted a lamb.

Flying W is a local meat butcher and seller located in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia in an area that used to be very agriculturally based.  When I was a child and visited West Virginia, we could regularly get local meat and usually experienced amazing home cooked food both from relatives and family friends we visited, even small stores. As the decades have passed, most small farms have gone out of business, traditional dishes are scarce and chains are dominant and any local restaurants in the area usually serve frozen and processed foods with zero local flavor or tradition.

What used to be a place of abundant local foods is now, sadly, a food desert. One can drive by abandoned barns and farmhouses, to see people living in trailers substandard to what the farmhouses used to offer and find the only place to buy food is a quickie mart or small chain grocery store.  This is the normal now for people here as it is elsewhere in America.  In just a generation and a half, almost all traces of local food production and distribution are gone, both from physical view and memory.  Food, all food, comes from the grocery store, period. It seems the entire area has become one large rural food desert. More irony added because of the rural aspect: an agricultural tradition gone and land resources lying fallow that could otherwise be used to produce one’s own food.

Being rural also means less economic opportunity that would create any type of change that would allow people to begin to shop local. Money has always been so tight here – probably since the first European settlers arrived and found it a difficult land to make a living on. The hard economic fact is that if its cheaper to buy food at a chain (and it usually is) then that is the direction people will take. With the collapse of the rural agricultural economy, there is no local abundance to make it affordable and easily available.

This is beyond the pale of the Charlottesville/DC/ Shenandoah Valley localvore food shed, where a growing number of people have embraced local food concepts and are willing to go out of their way to at least shop at a farmers market. What a difference 50 miles makes: my corner of West Virginia, in Hardy County, is not an area where anyone uses hard earned dollars to support a local venture for its own sake or for such an idealistic notion as starting up local foods movement.

As sad as I’ve always been about seeing the remaining West Virginia culture and self reliance fade away to dependence on cash based corporate products that drain money from the area, every once in a while I find something that shows a small underlying minority of people who feel differently.

Rooted in the conservative farm tradition, Flying W isn’t a venture of a couple of locavores transplanted from DC.  No pioneers here making a statement, or trying to change attitudes. It  is a local farm that branched into a local business filling a small niche of butchering for local farmers, (which USDA requires off site for farms who sell meat to consumers).  It also provides bulk sales of butchered meats, and on-site meat sales. And to meet the bottom line as well as local need it also operates a small restaurant with unimaginative food.

In fact, it is very much a ‘local’ food enterprise, serving local farmers and  consumers, and reflecting their local no-nonsense culture. No imported ideals. Nothing in the store’s signage has a hint of the words ‘local’ or ‘sustainable’, nor does their restaurant menu even mention using their own meat.  But to walk in and go to the meat case is a joy: an entire wall of frozen local meat – pork, beef, chicken in every form.

One can also buy a beef butchered, whole, half or quarter, from $2.59 to $3.29 a pound, which my family had been doing for a number of years. Flying W is also has a farm operation and is connected to other farmers.  So when my dad contacted them for a lamb,they asked around and got a lamb for him.

The wall of local meat at Flying W Farms

My brother and I hit the road to go pick up the meat and see the place for ourselves. Combing through the wall of meat cases, I purchased some bacon that turned out to be the best I’ve ever had, even better than any I’d ever purchased at other local food stores. I’ll be back for more. If I had a deep freeze, I’d be back for a lot more than bacon.

Flying W seems to be making a go of it in a hardscrabble location. One small entity that provides a service which allows farmers to sell their own meat directly to consumers in a place where there is no such thing as local.  Regardless of whether the ideals of the localvore movement ever creep westward to West Virginia from Virginia, Flying W is a practical resource that bridges a need for local farmers and those seeking local meats.  And for that, I’m grateful.

Flying W Farms
Rt. 50 West
Burlington, WV 26710

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