CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Hundreds of small farmers and those interested in small farming are gathering at the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center this week.

The 15th annual West Virginia Small Farm Conference hosted by West Virginia University Extension Service, in conjunction with the West Virginia Department of Agriculture (WVDA) and various partners, started on Wednesday morning.

“We have farmers that come from all over the state and across the region,” Lisa Jones, the Program Coordinator for WVU Extension Service Small Farm Center said. “They come for our educational classes, we have a trade show, our Winter Blues Farmers Market on Saturday, a seed swap, popcorn competition, and more. All kinds of fun stuff that represent small farming and farming specifically in West Virginia.”

Around 600 are expected to attend the conference.

Wednesday morning kicked off with various educational courses anyone can take. The conference has a 3-day pass, which is only good for Thursday through Saturday, being sold for $210 and a one day pass, good for any day, being sold for $90. A pass will allow an individual to take any course that day.

Jones said there is something for every farmer with over 100 educational courses to choose from. She mentioned classes like agriculture tax, food safety, and farm marketing for those beginners in farming, and courses such as research trials and efficient production practices, for advanced farmers.

“We offer a lot of different classes that are good for individuals who are just starting out,” Jones said. “Beginners that may or may not have a farm ready yet, they are really just entry level. We also offer classes to individuals who are much further along, much more advanced.”

The conference, in its 4th year in Charleston, is expected to see around 600 attendees ranging from fifth generation farmers to individuals that are just starting to grow products such as jellies and jams. The final event on Saturday is the Winter Blues Farmers Market where in past years, vendors have sold everything from just-bottled maple syrup to heirloom popcorn, farm-fresh eggs to goats’ milk soap, WVU Extension Services said in a release. Producers will also sell fresh vegetables grown in greenhouses and high tunnels in the middle of winter.

“We decided to put in on a Saturday to hopefully bring more individuals from Charleston to our event because it is officially open to the public at that point,” Jones said. “We also wanted to have a way for our attendees to be able to get product to take home with them.”

Jones said the entire event, and especially Saturday when the general public will be there, is a huge opportunity in West Virginia for small farms because there are a lot of people interested in farming but also a lot of buyers that are wanting to buy local.

“We are just trying to encourage individuals to ramp up and grow more things on their farm so that way we can connect them with those buyers that want to add local produce into either the school system, a restaurant, a farmer’s market in the community that might be looking for more producers,” she said.

According to the USDA’s most recent study of small farms across the United States, West Virginia was rated number one in small farming with a 97-percent mark. That means 97-percent of farms in West Virginia are defined as small farms, such as farms whose operator has a primary occupation other than farming, farms with small income and retirement farms.

The conference will have various keynote speakers and multiple activities and ways to learn about small farming through vendors and education. For more information on the conference, visit West Virginia University Extension Service’s website or to register click here.