Local farming contributes to WKU community

Gary Robbins walks through his greenhouse in Morgantown, on March 4. Robbins is an independent tomato grower that has been supplying WKU with fresh tomatoes since December 2014. Robbins grows around 4,000 tomatoes at one time and has been growing tomatoes for five years. “We hope to expand our growth to other plants in the future,” Robbins said. Harrison Hill/HERALD

Jessica Voorhees

The impact of the ripe, juicy tomatoes in Fresh Food Company and Burger Studio extends beyond the tastebuds to the local farming community. 

Gary Robbins, a local farmer who owns ATP Greenhouse in Morgantown, said the sale of his tomatoes to WKU improves his business, as well as the lives of other local farming families.

“It really helps our business because it cuts our travel cost down,” he said. “It helps local farmers to know they got a place to sell their product at a decent price you could make a living out of.”

Robbins delivers fresh tomatoes to Downing Student Union every Tuesday morning.

He began delivering his products in December as part of WKU’s effort to incorporate local food at dining venues on campus. 

Robbins said WKU’s mission to partner with local famers is part of a larger national movement toward fresh food. 

“Farm to table is a growing thing in this nation,” he said. “Fresher is better.”

Jamie Miller, sustainability coordinator for Aramark, said WKU also paired with three other local farms: Chaney’s Dairy Barn, Ale-8 and Udderly Kentucky. 

“The way the world is changing is kind of pushing us to go local,” she said. 

Miller said Udderly Kentucky was the first partner because of its location only five minutes from the university. She said President Gary Ransdell advocated for the inclusion of its products in campus food.

Ransdell said the use of local products is “practical and feasible” for WKU.

“I encourage Aramark to use local products when possible,” he said. 

All campus convenience stores and coffee shops feature local products, and Fresh Food Company, JuiceBlendz and Burger Studio incorporate the goods as well. 

Miller said the campus restaurants that are a part of major franchises do not allow for the inclusion of local food, so she works with the more “flexible” businesses, although it is a long process.

“It does take a little bit of time to implement these things, because they have to have certain requirements to be served by us, and it’s a very strenuous process,” she said. “It’s a lot of paperwork— certain insurance policies they must have and certain cleanliness guidelines.” 

ATP Greenhouse became the latest addition to the group of local farms partnered with WKU this winter. 

Robbins produces 4,000 pounds of tomatoes a week and hopes to deliver 500 to 1,000 pounds to WKU.

Miller said the quantity Robbins produces is ideal. 

“Little tiny farms that can’t produce 100 pounds of tomatoes a week wouldn’t be realistic for us because we need to serve so many students and faculty,” she said. 

However, buying local causes a significant increase in price.

Miller said the previous tomato supplier charged 63 cents per pound, and now ATP Greenhouse charges $2.50. 

“That’s a very large growth in price, but if the product is good quality it’s going to do better anyway, so it’s kind of like pick your poison— money or quality,” she said. 

Robbins said the benefit of his tomatoes outweighs the cost. 

“Local farms have to charge a little more, especially in my situation since I am growing in the wintertime and I have heat, but even though my product costs a little more, the bottom line is it’s cheaper because it’s fresher, it lasts longer and there’s not as much waste,” he said. 

Robbins said the benefit to the community also justifies the higher cost.

“Any time you can do local it really helps,” he said. “It helps to know you can grow and expand because you have a market like Western.”

The USDA reported in its September agriculture and food statistics report that in the last half-century large corporations have consolidated millions of mid-size farms, which supported rural communities. 

This shift resulted in huge corporate farms and many small family farms, which do not tend to support families as a sole source of income.

Robbins also owns Hidden Valley Golf Course, where ATP Greenhouse is located and operated in the winter months, during the course’s slow season. 

However, Robbins said he was raised on a farm and would like to expand his farming business. He said the partnership with WKU will provide the stability to do so. 

Miller said food services is currently reviewing other local farms as potential partners, such as Sunny Point Gardens in Edmonson county.

“We have our own goals as far as growth and local purchasing just to affect the local economy,” she said. “We’re taking small steps toward big changes.”