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Brooke County farmer reaps honors

BOUNTIFUL HARVEST — Eric Freeland takes great pride in operating his produce and berry farm near Windsor Heights. (Photo by Scott McCloskey)

WELLSBURG — Brooke County resident Eric Freeland, who owns and operates a produce and berry farm near Windsor Heights, has been chosen as West Virginia Northern Panhandle Soil Conservation District 2020 “Farm of the Year” — a distinction he takes great pride in for his family’s multi-generational farm.

Freeland believes the use of good conservation practices at his farm is one of the primary reasons for garnering the prestigious distinction.

“Of course we make a lot of compost. We do a lot of green cover crops and we do a lot of crop rotation,” Freeland explained.

Freeland, who supplies the Public Market in downtown Wheeling with his produce three or four days a week, also participates in a couple local farmers markets each year.

In addition to growing varieties of raspberry and blackberry bushes that require years of cultivating in rich soil before they produce the first berry, Freeland is also trying out a new rain gutter system of growing strawberries which is supported approximately four feet above the ground by a wooden framework — a newer growing method for strawberries that conserves water and soil.

“I would imagine that was some point of interest to the folks that made that (farm of the year) determination. Plus, we spend a lot of time and money keeping the farm looking nice,” Freeland explained.

In addition to growing berries, Freeland grows potatoes, beats, cantaloupe, corn, cucumbers, green beans and several varieties of tomato plants, on the eight-acre farm that has been handed down in his family for several generations. Living in the house that once belonged to his grandparents along Windy Hill Road, Freeland has been farming for nearly 40 years on property that has been in his family since the 1800’s.

Northern Panhandle Conservation District Chairman Mark Fitzsimmons said Freeland is being selected to represent the northern panhandle for the farm of the year distinction. Fitzsimmons said each conservation district around the state of West Virginia will produce their own “farm of the year” award this year in place of a state award winner because of the pandemic.

Fitzsimmons said Freeland doesn’t operate the “typical” calf/cow farming type of operation that has been selected in past years.

“His place is a little bit unique,” Fitzsimmons explained.

He added Freeland does an excellent job of presenting his farm to any visiting groups.

“We were there last year (during a state meeting) and we took a tour of his farm, and he does a very good job of presenting his farm and what he is doing,” he said.

Freeland said providing that rich “farm-to-table” experience for people is a way of life he continues to be very passionate about and he greatly appreciates local residents who have gone out of their way to support local farmers.

“We all really, really appreciate the local customers who are supporting local agriculture. …

“I grew up here,” Freeland commented. He said he has always been looking for new ways to improve the grounds and has taken a great deal of pride in the farm.

The dry and hotter-than-normal weather conditions over the past few months made this growing season a bit tougher than years past, according to Freeland.

“This year was not an exceptionally good year. We had that heavy hot spell. We had like a half inch of rain in ten weeks. Then we had about three inches of rain two weeks ago, and consequently we lost a lot of tomatoes because of that — it was too much water and they literally burst open,” Freeland commented. “But that’s the battles of farming,” he added.

While his years of experience as a farmer is one he has taken great pride in — Freeland said sometime over the next couple of years he plans to cut back on the daily grind to figure out some sort of retirement plan with the farm.

“It’s all hard work. Even if you have a lot of nice equipment, you’re still carrying stuff, you’re bending over picking, you’re on a tractor bouncing around … at some point there’s going to be some changes,” he added.

Public Market General Manager Jodi Adams said customers love purchasing Freeland’s and other local farmer’s produce because of the freshness, better flavor and quick farm to table experience.

“They follow people like Eric, and follow his farm. They can get it on Saturdays at the farmers market, but if they can’t make that or they want more they can come here six days a week and get more,”Adams explained. “He’s got quite a following, so that translates to our business, which is awesome.”

Adams said the first time she tasted one of Freeland’s locally grown strawberries, it immediately took her back to her childhood and how good fresh strawberries should taste.

“You don’t even remember, until you have one,” she added.

(McCloskey can be contacted at smccloskey@theintelligencer.net)

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