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The Autumn Harvest Festival in Monroe County is a yearly tradition. Agriculture and community has been celebrated at this event for over three decades. After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the festival returned on Sept. 24 to Willow Bend Road, near Union, West Virginia. But for some, the return was bittersweet.
The festival has been held annually at the West Virginia University (WVU) Willowbend Research, Education and Outreach Center, but the university is expected to sell the 230 acre property. The decision could put the future of the festival along with the farm’s employees into a precarious position.
Anna Lusk has been working at the festival since 1985. Lusk has seen the event grow from fewer than 100 attendees to thousands of visitors. This year was additionally special with the organizers honoring the founder of the festival, Bill Clark.
“He was an extension agent here in Monroe County for many years,” Lusk recalled. “Sometime in the early 1980s, nobody’s quite sure when, he got the idea to have a homegrown festival that would showcase Monroe County and our history and our agrarian way of life. We want to pay honor to Bill because if it hadn’t been for Bill’s dream, this never would have happened.”
In addition to Clark, Lusk and other festival volunteers, Shane Clarkson manages the farm as an employee of WVU Davis College. Clarkson and Jason Kleinfelder are concerned with what the future holds for them. If WVU decides to sell the farm, it’s not clear what the future holds for his job.
“Job hunting. That’s the only thing I know,” Clarkson said. “They [WVU Davis College] said they can place us in other locations but it was just kind of up in the air. Kind of looking for hope and maybe they can save them but it doesn’t look like it so far. Just had to kind of wait and see.”
While job placement might be an option, Jason Kleinfelter said he has a special connection to the farm in Monroe County. Kleinfelter also works at the farm.
“I love working here. I got a degree in animal science and I love this farm,” Kleinfelter said. “I love the way it looks. I love taking care of these animals. But we’ll see. Who knows what tomorrow brings but something will be available.”
The sale of the property isn’t a done deal. Residents and county commissioners are working various avenues to keep the farm open and available for future public use. Some of those options include the Monroe County Commission leasing the farm or convincing WVU that the property is viable and relevant for continued agricultural research.
Monroe County’s WVU extension agent Brian Wickline confirmed the sale could be the end of the Autumn Harvest Festival. As with many corporate and educational decisions, it comes down to money. The farm sits on more than 230 acres which could be costly.
“That would be a very large sum of money for a local organization to come up with to actually buy the farm,” Wickline said. “I think what that organization would be doing would be trying to do a long term lease with the university.”
The farm was donated to WVU in 1970.
“We’ve had several folks within the community come up with some ideas,” Wickline said. “Our county commissioners have been very supportive of coming up with ideas and projects that the community could utilize the farm for.”
While the general mood is doubtful, Wickline is preparing a proposal for WVU, outlining the potential of the Demonstration Farm, how it serves the community and how it can be self-sustaining, and even profitable.
“We’ve looked at budgets prior to and we’ve looked at budgets afterwards,” Wickline said. “If they did have the opportunity to take the farm over, and, yes, we anticipate a budget that is profitable.”
West Virginia State Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, shared a more optimistic attitude at the Autumn Festival.
“We got wind that they were looking at selling. And so we reached out to them [WVU] to say, ‘Hold on a minute.’ This is a really important farm in our area. We feel like it’s never reached its full potential. We’ve got some ideas and plans as to how it could reach its full potential. I mean, because if you look at agriculture in this part of the state, it’s huge business. And we feel like it’s been a missed opportunity that it hasn’t been fully utilized. During the festival really is the time that it’s utilized most and we feel like it could be utilized year-round.”
Darryl Donohue, dean of WVU Davis college, shared the following statement via email:
“WVU, Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design and Monroe County officials are working to come to an agreement regarding the future of the farm that will be beneficial to both parties,” Donohue wrote.
Meanwhile, Wickline hopes to have answers about the farm’s fate by the end of October. In the meantime, those involved with the demonstration farm and the Autumn Harvest Festival are doing their best to carry on and enjoy the possible last tradition.
“We’ve had a wonderful turnout and enthusiasm level is high, and weather is perfect,” Lusk said. “God has blessed us today. We could not be happier.”
Residents just hope it’s not too little, too late.
Reporting by Brian Allen, on behalf of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.