Urban growth: Ranson touts in-town ag projects

Commissioner of Agriculture Walt Helmick tours Clay Hill Farm, Community Ministries garden

RANSON – There’s urban and there’s rural and they’re both in Ranson.

[cleeng_content id="242689730" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]The town — with about 5,000 acres of farmland within its boundaries — is currently seeking a developer for a unique urban agriculture community that would be built at Clay Hill Farm.

During a tour of the site last week with Commissioner of Agriculture Walt Helmick, Ranson City Manager Andy Blake said planning for the Clay Hill Farm project was one of three initiatives funded through a Housing and Urban Development Challenge grant that the city secured in 2010.

Ranson Mayor David Hamill says the city he has led for 25 years is poised for an economic and community revival.

Ranson Mayor David Hamill says the city he has led for 25 years is poised for an economic and community revival.

“I think there is absolutely a need for farming,” Blake said. “People more and more are concerned about where their food comes from. They want more locally grown food. And there are definitely ways for the farmer/developer to make money but also preserve land for local food production.”

Clay Hill Farm is owned by Bill Strider and his family.

David Mills, director of community and economic development, said the town has more acres of farmland than any municipality in West Virginia.

“As we began to grow as a city … we realized that we didn’t want just a bunch of track housing over and over again so we came up with what we call urban agriculture,” Mills said. “The housing development has the same yield as track housing, so the developer makes the same amount of money – probably more – but the farm stays. The farm is interspersed around the development.”

Using a clustered housing development model, city officials hope to attract a developer to build dense residential communities surrounded by tracts that will continue to be actively farmed.

“We’ve designed the villages to be as dense as they can possibly be to preserve the farmland,” Mills said.“These fields could continue to be in high-yield crops like they are today, or they could be in vegetables and fruits and things like that.”

Mills explained that the developments are also envisioned to contain central community gardens to be used by community members to grow their own food.

“Right now, we know the slow food movement is coming around,” Mills said. “Someone could live in this development, start growing what they need to make a salsa in the community garden, rent time in the community kitchen, perfect that recipe, start selling it in the farmers market, and eventually they could need to rent the whole field to grow what they need to make the salsa.”

Blake said that the town has already approved a concept plan for the development, meaning that any prospective builder would have many planning obstacles removed from their path.

“We have a project that is fully vested and ready to be developed,” he said.

Commissioner of Agriculture Walt Helmick (center) tours Clay Hill Farm on Friday to review plans for an urban agriculture project with (from left) Bob Tabb, Marty Kable, David Hamill, Tyree Kable and Mark Kable.

Commissioner of Agriculture Walt  Helmick (center) tours Clay Hill Farm on Friday to review plans for an urban agriculture project
with (from left) Bob Tabb, Marty Kable, David Hamill, Tyree Kable and Mark Kable.

In addition to touring Clay Hill Farm, Helmick also visited also visited a set of raised bed gardens operated by volunteers from Jefferson County Community Ministries, which grows food to help stock the food pantry’s shelves with fresh produce.

Community Ministries Director Bob Shefner told the commissioner that the gardens had already successfully produced more than 600 pounds of fresh fruit and vegetables.

“That has probably touched the plates of 120 families,” Shefner said. “It is bringing in volunteers from other places to work on it.”

Helmick said both projects point to the increased diversification of West Virginia’s economy.

“There is a tremendous opportunity with what they are doing here,” he said.

Helmick said Huntington and Parkersburg have both expressed interest in pursuing urban agriculture projects, adding that he thought the projects in Ranson would provide important precedents for those and other cities throughout the state.

“Here is a model,” he said. “We’ll traffic this.”[/cleeng_content]

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