Alternative Agriculture Strategies for Rural Community Sustainable Development Northampton County, Virginia

1996 Annual Report for LS96-080

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1996: $228,516.91
Projected End Date: 12/31/1999
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $101,098.00
Region: Southern
State: Virginia
Principal Investigator:
Terry Thompson
The Nature Conservancy Virginia Coast Reserve

Alternative Agriculture Strategies for Rural Community Sustainable Development Northampton County, Virginia


1) Establish communication network which explores and shares the benefits from and perceived barriers to
adopting sustainable agriculture with growers on the Shore, reaching beyond the agricultural community
to include other sustainable development and marketing efforts.

2) Identify and evaluate agricultural and economic opportunities including adaptation of sustainable

techniques, identification of constraints, development of risk analysis, and evaluation of market strength
and potential.

3) Facilitate implementation of on-farm demonstration sites exploring diversification.

4) Conduct research, analysis and feasibility studies to assist farmers in transition to alternative crops
and/or technology and the production and marketing of value-added products.

5) Evaluate the success of this project by monitoring the farmers’ and the local citizens’ perceptions of
sustainable agriculture’s role in this rural community’s vision.

Work Accomplished
Agriculture and seafood have historically been the predominant sources of income for the environmentally sensitive Eastern Shore of Virginia. Located between the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay on the lower Delmarva Peninsula, the impact of land use decisions go beyond the farming community and affect the entire ecosystem and all local residents. Community sustainable development initiatives on the Eastern Shore promote economic vitality while protecting the environment and rural quality of life. This includes sustaining productive locally owned farms for the benefit of the community and future generations.

There is a vital need for crop diversification and value-added marketing to strengthen agricultural competitiveness and secure employment opportunities. An integrated, systems approach to explore this potential was developed at the request of growers. This approach examined production management, economic potential, marketing feasibility, new entrepreneurial opportunities, and environmental impact of both traditional crops and proposed alternatives. Both large-scale, agronomic crop alternatives, as well as small-scale high value crops are needed to promote environmentally sound, economically feasible crop diversification on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

This project used grower managed on-farm demonstration plots coordinated with site-specific sustainable production research, concurrent economic risk analysis, value-added market feasibility determination, ecological impact reduction, and rural community development to strengthen the role of the family farm. The participating growers were supported by an interdisciplinary technical team with expertise in extension service, sustainable agricultural production, niche crop experience, economic feasibility assessment, market development, sustainable community development, conservation, and socio-economic and ecological impact monitoring. The technical team provided support information, on-farm consultation of management skills for incorporating appropriate sustainable practices into each demonstration plot, and farm business planning and value-added marketing assistance.

An active effort was able to involve a broad range of diverse growers, including: from full-time to part-time farmers, from growers who own a family farm to those that lease land for production, from growers working at agronomic scale down to horticultural niche crop and market garden scale, from growers who employ farm workers to those who are themselves farm workers, from limited resource and minority growers to successful agribusiness people.

This project developed a diversity of grower-managed demonstration plots using alternative technology or producing alternative crops, within the context of the grower’s whole farm strategy and business plan. Despite the extreme drought conditions in 1997 and 1999 and hayman potato crop disaster in 1998, several of the demonstration plots provided important production information and enough crops for initial test marketing. This project has assisted growers in exploring economically and environmentally sound management strategies and improved marketing opportunities for several crops, including: hayman sweet potatoes, seedless watermelons, everlasting flowers, cut flowers, organic production, and deciduous holly buffer .

Complementary agriculture research station plots have developed important support information for the expansion of hayman production by additional growers. Economic computer model determined kenaf production was not currently feasible and identified conditions necessary to become economically viable for crop diversification. Coordinated computer modelling and research station plot production results identified fall broccoli and lettuce as potentially viable options. A interactive Excel file format computer model was adapted so growers and extension agents throughout Virginia will be able to use the interactive program to assess market windows and directly examine the impact of production and marketing changes to manage economic risk, extending the contribution beyond the Eastern Shore. Economic business analyses have provided information to support an entrepreneurial approach to niche and organic crop production with value-added marketing strategies as part of community-based sustainable development initiatives on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

Benefits to farmers and consumers
The strength of this project’s impacts and contribution lies in the diversity of participating growers, the interdisciplinary team work of the technical team, and the connections to the local community. The project explored ways to protect productive family farms by involving diversification of crops, efficient production practices and value-added marketing strategies to give sustainable agriculture the necessary economic advantage and connection to the local community and environment.

The results and various “products” from this project have provided information, tools and methods growers can use to evaluate potential new enterprises which involve crop diversification and a transition to alternative agriculture strategies on the Eastern Shore. This project has made a good start by identifying production, socio-economic, and environmental barriers to sustainable agriculture and by establishing a network of local growers and resource professionals to share ideas and information. This project has also helped establish networking with value-added marketing and broader sustainable community development initatives.

The value-added, branded marketing of Eastern Shore Select™ Hayman potatoes and chips emphasizing the Eastern Shore’s unique rural culture and environment offers hope for an economically and ecologically viable option for the survival of the historically family-owned Eastern Shore farms. Crop specific “Best Management Practices”ensure environmental compatibility and consumer product quality as a pre-requisite to qualify for this marketing advantage. Other agricultural and aquacultural products also have a potential for this kind of marketing in the future. The publicity associated with the value-added Eastern Shore Select™ Hayman marketing campaign has also accomplished valuable outreach locally, regionally, and nationally related to the goals of this SARE project.

The Community Garden project demonstrates how sustainable agriculture can be incorporated into rural community development. The garden was started by this low-income community as a pilot project to produce mixed vegetables for distribution first to the community’s elderly and handicapped residents and then shared by the rest of the residents. The community garden has successfully fed about 30 people each year. The groundwork laid with the SARE grant Community Garden project is now in transition to a Community Farm project that can generate cash and income for the community and its residents, with the potential to include 130 acres for agricultural production and marketing through a community subscription program.

Lessons learned from this SARE project have been and will continue to be shared as a model for other rural communities, demonstrating a method where the transition to sustainable agriculture supports the preservation of the community’s rural life style and environment. Sustainable agriculture in general, and SARE projects more specifically, are presented to national and international visitors as a critical part of a landscape-level approach to community-based conservation.

The Green’s Creek watershed approach created an exciting landscape-level illustration of sustainable agriculture in action for farmland protection:
-environmental research in the agro-ecosystem
-best management buffer with potential for economic return
-hayman potato production linked to value-added marketing
-organic crop and livestock production
-and dried flower enterprise with niche marketing