Regionally Centered Sustainable Agriculture System

Project Overview

LS97-084
Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1997: $173,240.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1999
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $235,635.00
Region: Southern
State: Virginia
Principal Investigator:
Anthony Flaccavento
Clinch Powell Sustainable Development Initiative

Annual Reports

Information Products

Commodities

  • Agronomic: grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Vegetables: tomatoes
  • Animals: bovine, poultry, swine

Practices

  • Animal Production: feed/forage, parasite control, free-range, pasture renovation, range improvement, grazing - rotational, watering systems
  • Crop Production: cover crops, organic fertilizers, application rate management
  • Education and Training: technical assistance, demonstration, extension, farmer to farmer, mentoring, on-farm/ranch research, participatory research
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, community-supported agriculture, marketing management, market study, value added, whole farm planning
  • Pest Management: biological control, botanical pesticides, chemical control, integrated pest management, row covers (for pests), sanitation, weather monitoring
  • Soil Management: green manures, organic matter, soil analysis
  • Sustainable Communities: infrastructure analysis, new business opportunities, partnerships, public participation, urban/rural integration, sustainability measures

    Abstract:

    John and Barbara Kling’s 340 acre farm borders scenic Toole Creek in the Appalachian Mountains of southwestern Virginia. Along with their two children and four grandchildren, the Klings manage a diversified operation that includes livestock, organic produce, niche market products and forest resources. This diversity is ecologically based and economically driven.

    Among the enterprises you’ll find on the Klings farm are lamb and wool, elephant garlic, garlic braids and a unique and delightful garlic jelly. Additionally, they raise five different fruits and vegetables organically and produce nine types of peppers for two specialty pepper products developed by another local farmer, for sale to a major national retail catalog. Some of the timber from their 60 acres of forestland is used on-farm, while the rest is sold to Appalachian Sustainable Development for drying in its solar kiln. Like most small farmers the Klings struggle to make ends meet, keeping many irons in the fire, creatively using limited resources to keep their farm and household running.

    Along with 30 other small scale farmers and dozens of agricultural product entrepreneurs, the Kling family is part of a rapidly growing effort to rejuvenate the Central Appalachian economy through locally based, ecologically healthy enterprises. One of the catalysts in this “sustainable development” ferment is a regional non profit organization called Appalachian Sustainable Development, or ASD. Begun in October, 1995 ASD is an action oriented organization comprised of farmers, loggers, entrepreneurs, community-based organizations, environmental groups, and economic development agencies. This unlikely association of interests initially came together around a simple but enormously challenging question: How can we diversify and strengthen our region’s economy and better conserve our environment?

    In this context, ASD initiated a project to develop a more regionally centered sustainable agriculture system in the Central Appalachian region, boosted by a $173,240 grant from USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. ASD’s main partners in this effort included: Rural Resources (Greeneville, TN), Jubilee Project (Hancock County, TN), the Lonesome Pine Office on Youth (Wise County, VA), Cooperative Extension staff of both VA and TN, local staff from the Natural Resource Conservation Service and Resource Conservation and Development Districts, faculty and researchers from Virginia State University, Virginia Tech, University of Tennessee, East Tennessee State University and Walters State Community College, along with several lead farmers. The two and a half year long project also garnered support from the Appalachian Regional Commission, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, the James C. Penney Foundation, and the Virginia Environmental Endowment.

    The Central Objectives of this project were to:

    1. Increase the understanding and use of sustainable agriculture practices among farmers, especially limited resource producers, tobacco farmers, and those in transition from more conventional farm practices. A broad range of farm-based educational activities, along with ongoing technical assistance and farmer led research were used to address this objective.

    2. Build a cadre of innovative farmers in the region, closely linked to Cooperative Extension and regional universities, in order to create an ongoing learning and teaching capacity for sustainable agriculture in the region.

    3. Increase public understanding of sustainable agriculture and develop high value markets for local sustainable products. These markets were to include community supported agriculture programs, retail farmers markets, partnerships with grocers and other wholesale vendors, and specialty markets.

    4. Increase the viability of farming and agricultural entrepreneurship in the region in order to reduce the loss of farmland and farmers and to help diversify and revitalize the region’s economy.

    The most significant accomplishments achieved through this project included the following:

    * Forty nine workshops were held, attended by over 1200 people, covering a wide range of topics including livestock production and management, crop production, disease, pest and soil fertility management, value added products, and marketing. Additionally, the first Southern Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture conference was held in February, 1999, with a second conference planned for March, 2000. Overall evaluation of workshops, farm field days and the conference were very strong, with many repeat attendees.

    * There was a substantial increase in sustainable/organic production over the two and half years: the number of certified organic farmers increased from just one to 18 in the region, with another 10-12 utilizing biological or low input practices for crop and livestock production. Ten demonstrations sites were initiated on farms in five counties throughout the region, providing opportunities for hands-on continuing education in sustainable production methods.

    * A research and technical assistance core group was built, drawing in local and regional Extension staff, and faculty and researchers from four universities in Tennessee and Virginia. This group offers a long term commitment of expertise in commercial fruit and vegetable production, specialty crops, agriculture marketing, and sustainable livestock production.

    * A region-wide analysis of consumer food preferences and buying habits documented wide spread, strong interest in local/sustainably produced meats and produce. It has been used to help build and cement partnerships with consumers and institutional buyers.

    * The network of biological and organic farmers raising produce for market more than doubled, from 12 to 30, including at least six limited resource farmers.

    * The Central Appalachian region’s first commercial “kitchen incubator” was completed at the Jubilee Center in Hancock County, Tennessee. This is providing opportunities for start-up entrepreneurs to test and develop high value agricultural products.

    * Two other communities in the region initiated partnerships with existing facilities to provide opportunities for development and testing of preserved food products.

    * A partnership with a locally based grocery chain – Whites Fresh Foods – was initiated, the first time a grocer in the region allocated a designated section for locally produced, organic farm products. Using the name Appalachian Harvest, locally raised organic produce was included in seven stores in the East Tennessee region. This should expand to additional stores in 2000 and will eventually include value added products and meats.

    Although the project results are in many ways preliminary, there have been a number of benefits to farmers and consumers growing out of these efforts. To farmers, these include:

    * Increased understanding and improved research on a variety of sustainable production issues, such as control of tomato blight, cucumber beetle, Colorado potato and Mexican bean beetles, organic soil fertility, pasture health and weed management, low cost water and fencing systems for intensive grazing, multi species grazing, and use of warm season grasses for enhanced livestock production.

    * A widely dispersed group of farmer-innovators demonstrating one or more of these sustainable agriculture practices and accumulating knowledge to share with other farmers in the region. In fact, at least five “sustainable farming hubs” developed during the project wherein one farmer’s innovation has garnered interest in new practices among several neighboring farmers.

    * Increased market access for organic and sustainable farm products.

    * Increased availability of education, technical assistance and expertise from researchers in sustainable production practices.

    * Facilities and technical help to begin the development of commercial specialty food products.

    To consumers, the benefits include:
    * Much more widely available organic produce in the region.

    * Increased availability of sustainably produced meat products, particularly beef and lamb, and to a lesser degree, poultry.

    * Increased opportunities to visit innovative farm operations and to access materials on sustainable agriculture.

    Project objectives:

    Goal A CONSUMER EDUCATION, PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT AND MARKETING.

    Purpose: To be viable at both farm and community levels, all sustainable development efforts must ultimately be market driven. At the same time, “organic” markets, relational marketing and niche marketing are evolving markets wherein considerable consumer education and public outreach is integral to their development. Thus the process of analyzing the market for local, sustainably produced agricultural products entails a great deal of product development and testing, along with creation or expansion of marketing systems that more effectively link consumers with the producers of their (our) food.

    Objectives and Approach

    1. Expansion of Regional Markets, including CSA’s restaurant networks and wholesale opportunities.

    a. Expand existing community supported agriculture projects to three CSAs and 160 participating households in 1997, four CSAs and 200 participating households in 1998. Expansion will be led by Team B and a resource team as outlined in Goal B, Objective 2.

    b. Expand and improve regional restaurant marketing network to increase total sales by 30% each year, and to improve access and efficiency for growers. Restaurant markets will be expanded through off farm contacts with new restaurants and cultivation of ongoing contracts with new and existing restaurant partners; additional development of table tent cards (sample enclosed) will be used to solidify restaurant commitment to local growers; on farm season extension techniques will extend season for fresh produce; introduction of meats and processed items, particularly in year two and beyond will also expand sales.

    Improvements in farmer access and efficiency will focus on improved distribution and delivery systems, which has been identified as a critical need by local growers.

    c. Gain entry into regional wholesale markets for at least 10 local, biological producers by year 2. Entry into national and even regional grocery chains has proved to be difficult, primarily due to season limitations and demands for product uniformity and consistency. This potentially large market will continue to be cultivated, drawing upon the soon to be opened Weber City regional farmers market; (we are actively involved in the Steering Committee for this); additionally, we will continue to develop a “local, chemical free” identify and cultivate a consumer demand with this at the retail level. We will use high value specialty items such as raspberries, exotic peppers etc. to also help gain entry to these markets.

    2. Identify and cultivate markets for value added products

    a. Conduct basic market research on high value, niche markets at the national level. Market research will include examination and interviews with leading catalog marketers as well as regional and national retail outlets specializing in exotic and biological/organic food products.

    b. Continue test marketing, development and evaluation of existing value added products such as the Mountain Gift Basket ( an assortment of 11 locally produced items sold in a locally made basket/trug), and the “Peck of Peppers”, which has been developing for six years under the leadership of Chestnut Ridge Farm.

    c. Expand wholesale market for organic/low input livestock products, including beef, pork and poultry. Building on markets developed by Emerald Family Farms and Thorntree Farm, partnerships with whole foods groceries such as Earth Fare in Western North Carolina will be cultivated and/or expanded.

    d. Utilize existing regional market structures - CSA households, restaurants, health food stores - as markets for meat products and processed foods. Coordination between existing CSA farmers and restaurant marketing network and food product entrepreneurs will be facilitated by the marketing staff and team.

    e. Develop and disseminate educational materials on nutritional and ecological advantages of “lean, clean” meats. This will build on materials already developed by Emerald Family Farms, Joel Salatin and others.

    3. Test and develop high value processed food products

    a. Develop a commercial capacity within the region for processing high value food products. Focus in year one will be on the development of the Sneedville Farm Products Center which will serve as both an incubator training center and a facility for development of commercial grade, high value products. In subsequent years additional commercial processing capacity will be developed in other communities in VA and TN.

    b. Link farmers, food processing entrepreneurs, and marketing specialist to increase the marketability of locally raised and processed products. The close collaboration which our team structure facilitates will help ensure that product development is market driven, enhancing viability for small scale entrepreneurs.

    4. Expand & increase effectiveness of relationship-based markets

    See Goal B, Objective 2
    5. Initiate research on high value, non food agricultural products.
    Working with institute for local self reliance in Washington, D.C., and the VA State, VA Tech and UT, examine existing research on potential markets, products, and technical requirements in developing non food agricultural products. Special attention will be given to carbohydrate based chemicals and fuels, especially those that can be manufactured with modest facilities and capital needs.

    Goal B PRODUCER TRAINING, EDUCATION & OUTREACH

    Purpose: We will develop a wide range of practical, farm-based educational opportunities for youth and college interns, focusing on sustainable farming practices and value added products and innovative markets in order to reverse the exodus of young people from the Region’s farms and communities.

    Objective 1: Provide experiential training for youth and potential farmers in the principles and practices of sustainable agriculture.

    a. Establish the Hancock County School Farm Project to offer hands-on learning experiences where students play a lead role in the management and operation of a CSA. Hancock County HS has established a farm space adjacent to the school. The voc-ag teacher and a school farm manager will teach organic production methods along with marketing.

    b. Expand the Rural Resources Farm School (Holly Creek Farm)in Greene County, TN offer internships which give students hands-on experience working alongside farmers practicing aspect of sustainable agriculture. New Harvest Produce CSA located on site as well as the Lee County Demonstration Farm, Emerald Family Farms, and Chestnut Ridge Farm will be primary resources for interns. In addition, students will be responsible for readings and an experimental garden. In addition, the Education Team will assist in the placement of apprentices and interns who choose to spend their summer working on a farm in the region such as New Harvest Produce CSA, the Lee County Demonstration Farm, Emerald Family Farms, or Chestnut Ridge Farm.

    c. Coordinate workshops, field days, and other seminars at schools and on farms to promote awareness and support of local, sustainably oriented farms.

    Objective 2: Promote and support the development of Community Supported Agriculture and related direct marketing systems.

    a. The Education Team will promote Community Supported Agriculture, utilizing New Harvest Produce, the Hancock County School Farm, and the Highlands BioProduce CSA for farm tours and field days, involving potential growers as well as interested consumers. The Team will also coordinate off-season town meetings utilizing church, farm and consumer groups for out reach.

    b. Develop educational materials to encourage support and patronage of local agricultural producers. Through restaurants, retail outlets, health and environmental organizations, disseminate information on availability of local, sustainably produced ag products. Work closely with Virginia Association Biological Farmer’s “Green Label” program now under development.

    Objective 3: Provide educational opportunities in the area of value-added product development, entrepreneurship, and marketing.

    Promote hands-on classes, seminars and other learning opportunities being offered around the region by team members such as Business Start, Jubilee Project, and Lonesome Pine Office on Youth. We will work closely with 4-H and vocational/technical schools in this effort, and will coordinate with the Marketing Specialist in product identification.

    Objective 4: Increase collaboration with local and regional economic development agencies, Cooperative Extension, Natural Resources Conservation Service, State Departments of Agricultural, and Land Grant schools in the design and sponsorship of educational activities focused on agriculture and value-added products.

    The Education Coordinator will work with representatives from each of these organizations to identify common objectives and to address them by mutually supported educational activities. Because the ASD Sustainable Ag Task Force already has representatives from Extension and NRCS on it, and there are strong working relationships with faculty from UT, VPI and VA State, this collaboration should grow steadily.

    Goal C - ON FARM RESEARCH AND TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE

    Purpose: To improve understanding of sustainable agricultural systems and practices among Central Appalachian farmers, as well as community based and publicly supported agriculture resource people; and to encourage and assist farmers in the adoption of these practices through demonstrations, on-farm assistance, market oriented incentives, and the development of “farmer trainers” who help encourage and train their peers.

    Objectives and Approach
    1. Develop and maintain four farm demonstration sites for research and dissemination of sustainable agriculture practices. The four demonstration sites, ranging in size from 250 acres to a 1 acre High School based farm, will provide venues for “field days” and public demonstrations, as well as sites for ongoing, hands on research into sustainable agriculture practices. Two of these farms - the Hancock County High School Farm and the Holley Creek Farm in Greene County, TN are operated by not for profit organizations. Both of these will focus on fruit and vegetable production and the development of value added food processing facilities. The other two farms, in Washington and Lee Counties, VA, are privately owned, and will demonstrate various dimensions of integrated livestock operations, along with some fruit and vegetable production. All four farms will have some commercial dimensions (the non profits to help generate revenues); all four have also undertaken a long term commitment to farmer training and public education, and will make their farms available for such well beyond the life of this project.

    The rationale for four sites in a ten county region is threefold: first, farmers often will not travel far and thus need sites close to home and similar to their own circumstances; second, each site offers different soils, terrain and other ecological factors, thereby broadening our testing of the applicability of sustainable ag practices; and third, all these sites will also be integral parts of our consumer and public education efforts and thus must be dispersed throughout the region.

    Overall coordination of TA and research will be shared by the Team Leader, a 25% time staff person and practicing farmer, and Mr. Andy Hankins, Cooperative Extension Specialist from Virginia State University. Mr. Hankins will oversee the design, set-up, monitoring and evaluation of field-based research, drawing upon colleagues at VPI, UT, NRCS, and local Extension offices. All research issues will be determined by local farmers and agricultural producers, who will also be integral to their design, application and monitoring.

    2. Assess the research and technical assistance needs of farmers, especially those interested in a transition to more sustainable practices. With help from Extension, NRCS, and the Nature Conservancy, we will continue and expand our farmer outreach efforts in order to identify their primary technical and research needs. Field days will be used to gather farmers, and presentations through Farm Bureau, 4-H and other farm organizations will further identify interested farmers and their concerns. The Team Leader will coordinate the farm demonstrations and TA requests, and help link and integrate the research and activities of the four demonstration sites. He/she will also coordinate outreach to local farmers, drawing heavily upon ASD’s network of farmers community based organizations, Extension staff including Mike Cassell (Scott Co., VA) and Steve Hale (Greene Co., TN), and NRCS staff, including Bill Keith (Lee Co., VA) and Colin Loring (Hancock Co., TN).

    3. Conduct on-farm research into rotational grazing and integrated livestock production practices, and convene 3-5 on farm demonstrations and workshops for farmers and the public. Working with Joel Salatin, an internationally recognized expert in this field, we will strengthen existing rotational grazing operations (Emerald Family Farms, Thorntree Farm) and expand application of these and other integrated livestock systems to our Lee County farm and other sites.

    4. Set up research trials in a variety of farm settings, focusing on biological production methods for fruits and vegetables. The exact topics for research will be determined in consultation with farmers and agriculture resource personnel. Some of the key issues that have been identified by growers thus far include: diseases in solanaceae, especially tomatoes; biological insect control, especially in potatoes, corn, leafy greens and cucurbits; season extension techniques to expand markets and increase production; no till or minimum tillage in vegetable crops; and obtaining adequate soil fertility with minimal off farm or chemical inputs.

    Working with Dr. John Caldwell (VPI), we will utilize a “farming systems research” approach by which issues and innovations are tested across a cluster of farms/farmers, thereby strengthening the validity and applicability of the results, and helping to build a core of local, “farmer trainers”. A written summary of this process will provide both an evaluative tool for ASD and a key element of our future planning.

    5. Provide research and training to prepare entrepreneurs for food processing. This will include production, equipment and facility issues, as well as food processing regulations, labeling and related issues. As with all other research and technical assistance, information gathered here will be closely coordinated with our product and market development team.

    A key component of our efforts to broaden the base of sustainably oriented farmers will be the provision of high value market-based incentives, many of which we have already begun to establish. Further development of market incentives will help guide research and technical assistance priorities.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.