Regionally Centered Sustainable Agriculture System
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.
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
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.