Laura Dean Bennett
High Rocks recently announced its newest endeavor – Ruby Grow – a farming internship program designed to provide local, organic produce to Pocahontas and Greenbrier County residents as well as to schools.
High Rocks Educational Corporation is a non-profit organization serving Pocahontas and surrounding counties in West Virginia. It provides award-winning educational programming for young people ages 12-to-29, with a focus on empowerment, critical thinking and leadership.
Marlinton resident Casey Withers, who has deep roots in Pocahontas County, has been appointed Farm Manager for the new Ruby Grow project.
Withers is a 2009 graduate of Pocahontas County High School.
He graduated from West Virginia University in 2015 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Environmental and Energy Resources Management. He worked for a WVU/ National Forest program in Oregon for three and a half years before coming to a fork in the road.
“I decided that if I was going to leave Oregon, there was no place I’d rather be than back home in Pocahontas County,” Withers said with a smile.
“And I’m really glad to have found a meaningful way to contribute to the community at High Rocks.”
Hillsboro native Ralph Burns is partnering with the project in memory of his mother, Ruby Burns.
She was an original board member at High Rocks and was deeply interested in good futures for the young people of Pocahontas County – hence the name: Ruby Grow.
Burns has provided a three-quarter acre plot of land in a “free-lease” agreement for the agricultural venture in Hillsboro.
“I am very happy and excited to be partnering with this project and the really fantastic forward thinking people that are focused on sustainability, healthy eating and giving opportunities to our next generation,” Ralph Burns said.
“The project name ‘Ruby Grow’ came about because my mother was always interested in being a part of developing and supporting each generation as they came along. With that as the core, plus my mother’s love for gardening, it just made sense. She always said to me, ‘RW, some of the best food is the food you grow.’
“I still believe that today.
“With all that said, when I was approached about this project, I knew instantly that I wanted to be a part of it, and I know my parents, Ruby and Dick, would be one hundred percent behind it, too.”
Interestingly, Withers is related to the Burns family.
“Ruby was my great-aunt, my grandmother’s sister,” Withers explained.
“She would have been so happy to be part of this. My aunt Ruby loved growing flowers and food and was always involved in the community and supportive of community projects.”
High Rocks Executive Director Sarah Riley was well acquainted with Ruby Burns, too.
“Our families were always good friends,” Riley said, remembering.
“She and her husband, Dick, were pillars of the community.
“I’m sure lots of people remember Ruby fondly. She was a hairdresser – she ran the Esquire in Marlinton for years.
“She was an avid gardener and canner, and she kept an immaculate and well-stocked pantry,” Riley said.
“And I always think of how good Ruby was with young people.”
The Ruby Grow plan is to grow produce like bell peppers, melons and cherry tomatoes which will be used in Pocahontas County schools, Pocahontas and Greenbrier County markets and restaurants, and eventually, even markets farther afield.
“We’re hoping we might even get our produce out to markets like the Capitol Market in Charleston,” Withers said.
Plans include a large outdoor garden and a 30 foot by 90 foot high tunnel with planting set to begin May 1.
Besides produce, the Ruby Grow project will grow young, would-be farmers, as it employs them during the growing season.
“It’s an ambitious and innovative project,” Withers said.
“The program will use a 3-1-1 method of mentorship – three hours of on the job training, one hour of entrepreneurship education, and one hour of personal leadership development.”
The Appalachian Regional Commission Power Initiative is partnering with High Rocks to assist in financing the building of the high tunnel and other start-up costs.
High Rocks will also work with existing collection and distribution partners who connect family-owned, independent farmers to larger markets, providing transportation and markets for produce.
High Rocks will have refrigerated space on site to keep vegetables fresh following harvest, and is happy to share refrigeration space and a shared distribution pickup site with area farmers.
The goal for Ruby Grow is to eventually have seven high tunnels growing produce, and hopes are high that sales revenue from the crops will sustain the program over time.
“This will be a market opportunity for growers in Appalachia,” Withers stated.
“Through strong partnerships – sharing networks, skills and know- ledge – I believe West Virginia farmers can play a big role in the food industry.”
The Ruby Grow project is designed to empower both beginner and experienced farmers by helping them find the resources they need to succeed in the local Mountain State market.
“We are looking for volunteers, employees, buyers and more,” Riley said.
“We are so excited to partner with the community to grow beautiful, healthy food while investing in the future of the young people of Pocahontas County.
“We hope the community will support us by buying our produce.
“We encourage any young person interested in building their personal and professional skills – while learning to grow and sell top quality vegetables – to connect with us.”