Posts Tagged ‘Farming’

Extending the Growing Season

Friday, February 10th, 2017 - posted by interns

How Appalachian farmers and gardeners are raising crops through the winter

By Dave Walker

Finding fresh, local food during cold Appalachian winters can be a challenge. “Most folks in our region don’t grow at all in the winter,” says Christopher McKenzie of the nonprofit organization Grow Appalachia. “That limits what’s available and when. We know that families need and like to eat fresh produce year-around, and we want folks to be able to eat out of their garden all year long.”

Work-release inmates help Chris McKenzie build a high tunnel for the Russellville Urban Gardening Center in Russellville, Ky. McKenzie says they were a great group to work with. Photo courtesy of the Bowling Green Daily News

Work-release inmates help Chris McKenzie build a high tunnel for the Russellville Urban Gardening Center in Russellville, Ky. McKenzie says they were a great group to work with. Photo courtesy of the Bowling Green Daily News

Some farmers and backyard gardeners in the region are using season extension strategies to do just that.

Season extension expands growing opportunities by controlling the environment around a plant, allowing more favorable conditions for the plant to thrive. From high tunnels to low tunnels to heated greenhouses to straw bales and cold frames, gardeners and farmers are producing fresh vegetables in Appalachia even in the deepest snow.

Crops like carrots, beets, cabbage, kale and lettuce can be planted earlier in the spring or sustained over the winter. Summer vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, beans and cucumbers can also be started earlier and be better managed for disease prevention, water use and consistency.

For Grow Appalachia, based in Berea, Ky., four-season growing matters as the group works to end food insecurity in Appalachia. Founded in 2009, the nonprofit organization provides funding and technical assistance to 40 partner sites in more than 50 counties throughout Central Appalachia. In 2015, they helped 4,644 gardeners grow over 580,000 pounds of food.

“We work in this region for a reason,” says McKenzie. “A lot of the counties that we work in are record-setters, nationwide, for joblessness. The exit of the coal economy has made an impact on our region.”

By encouraging Appalachians to grow more of their own food, Grow Appalachia partner sites have been able to introduce market farming as an extra income source for families, teach new generations how to preserve their food, and connect fresh food with community centers, assisted living facilities and hunger relief agencies.

Lengthening the Life of Your Garden

Each season extension strategy is unique to the backyard garden or farm. But several simple methods can go a long way toward enjoying fresh, hyper-local greens in the middle of winter.

Hardy plants — including arugula, cabbage, mustard greens, kale, swiss chard, mâche, miner’s lettuce and turnip greens — can grow well throughout the region unaided or with some simple frost protection. Many of these are sown in the fall for winter eating, but some can be started in December for early spring harvests.

Use row covers to blanket plants and insulate them from the cold. They come as fabric rolls from garden supply companies, and can be cut for the gardener’s bed size and reused each year. By adding more layers, the gardener increases their insulation. Small metal hoops lift the row covers above garden beds and plants, much like a tiny high tunnel or greenhouse.

Straw bale cold frames can be constructed by placing straw bales in a rectangle. By adding a window frame on top, the gardener has made a mini-greenhouse. This simple and inexpensive strategy can be very useful when starting vegetables for the spring. To control temperatures, the gardener can ventilate the cold frame by propping open the window with a stick at different heights.

High Tunnels for Higher Yields

McKenzie’s work with Grow Appalachia focuses on the organization’s social enterprises — businesses that aim to improve communities, not just make a profit. By manufacturing and selling high tunnels alongside certified-organic fertilizers, Grow Appalachia is able to direct profits back into its gardening program.

High tunnels look like greenhouses, but are unheated, and are an increasing trend with gardeners and farmers. Some structures are small, just six feet wide by twelve feet long. Others are much larger, such as 30 feet by 96 feet, with peaked, gothic roofs that allow space for tractors.

These structures enable gardeners to harvest year-round and provide farmers with a market advantage. Over the last several years, Grow Appalachia has built 79 high tunnels for 40 different farms and families in Appalachia, many of whom also participate in Grow Appalachia’s gardening program.

“One of our farmers in Waco, Ky., grows spinach in his high tunnels,” says McKenzie. “He’s able to have fresh spinach in February when no one else has fresh greens. He once told me that he was making better money in February than the height of the summer growing season.”

Grow Appalachia’s initial high tunnel design was flexible in its size and did not require grading the land or pouring concrete. Known as a quonset-style high tunnel, it looks like a series of semi-circular hoops that are short and narrow, without a peaked roof. These smaller high tunnels work well on slopes or in compact growing spaces.

“Later, we worked with the University of Kentucky’s research farm to develop a gothic-style high tunnel that has a peaked roof,” says McKenzie. This allows the high tunnel to be larger and to perform better in harsh weather conditions.

Grow Appalachia works with farmers and gardeners to develop unique high tunnels for each client. The organization receives raw materials such as lumber, galvanized steel, hardware and plastic, and manufactures pre-built kits: galvanized steel tubes are bent, doors are fabricated and holes are drilled. The hoop houses are then delivered by Grow Appalachia, which can also assist with construction and follow-up technical assistance.

While high tunnels constructed with galvanized steel can last a long time, their plastic covers and wood support-sidings have a limited lifetime. Greenhouse-specific plastics are engineered with UV inhibitors, often guaranteed for four years. After that, the plastic begins to discolor and needs to be replaced.

Depending on scale and style, high tunnels vary in price. But for market farmers, support can be found through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which offers a cost-share program. Grow Appalachia’s high tunnel enterprise meets NRCS standards, and the organization can assist farmers through the cost-share process. The nonprofit also serves as a NRCS technical assistance provider in Southeast Kentucky, helping high tunnel farmers with growing plans, guidance on pests and weeds, and assistance designing irrigation systems.

Grow Appalachia Program Director David  Cooke stands inside a gothic-style high tunnel built for Greenhouse17, a domestic violence shelter outside of Lexington, Ky. Photo courtesy Grow Appalachia

Grow Appalachia Program Director David Cooke stands inside a gothic-style high tunnel built for Greenhouse17, a domestic violence shelter outside of Lexington, Ky. Photo courtesy Grow Appalachia

“Grow Appalachia has helped us do patchwork on our high tunnels by adding new plastic and building new sides,” says Christina Lane of GreenHouse17 in Lexington, Ky., an advocacy agency committed to ending intimate partner abuse in families and the community. Serving 17 Kentucky counties, seven of which are in Appalachia, GreenHouse17 grows flowers, fruits and vegetables in six high tunnels on its 40-acre farm.

Since 2012, GreenHouse17 has worked with the University of Kentucky and Grow Appalachia to develop its high tunnels. Participants in GreenHouse17’s farm-training program earn stipends and learn the basics of farming and running a small business. Produce is used for meals at the center and sent to the 75 members of the organization’s Community-Supported Agriculture flower program.

“High tunnels are super helpful,” says Jessica Ballard of GreenHouse17. “We’re able to grow winter root vegetables, cabbage and kale while also putting flower seeds in the ground earlier. Our flowers’ stem strength is better and our high-dollar flowers won’t break from the wind and rain.”

Severe weather, though, presents challenges. “Over the past years with interesting weather patterns, we’ve seen a lot of collapses due to snow because folks have sourced them as cheaply as possible or they’re getting a kit from outside the region which may not be built for the snow load,” McKenzie says. “Season extension is an investment, and if you invest in season extension it will pay off. High tunnels have the potential to be a game-changer for farmers, especially where weather can be a challenge.”

At High Rocks Educational Corporation in Pocohontas County, W.Va., youth help raise beds of lettuce.  Photo courtesy Grow Appalachia

At High Rocks Educational Corporation in Pocohontas County, W.Va., youth help raise beds of lettuce. Photo courtesy Grow Appalachia

At the Laurel County African American Heritage Center in London, Ky., Wayne Riley works with local youth to grow food for community members, an assisted-living center and the county’s jail. Riley grows lettuce, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower in the winter and tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and beans in the summer. With plans for two more high tunnels, the Laurel County African American Heritage Center will soon have six through Grow Appalachia’s social enterprise.

Riley prefers smaller high tunnels because they allow him to better rotate crops and control disease within the garden.

“Trying to overlap growing each season in a high tunnel can be hard,” says McKenzie. “With smaller tunnels, you can have one for spring, one for summer, and one for a cover crop. This lends itself to a sustainable production plan.”

Beyond Season Extension

In addition to its high tunnel social enterprise, Grow Appalachia works with partner sites across the region. These community groups collaborate with backyard gardeners, farmers and community gardeners to help produce bountiful harvests. Through six core classes, home gardeners work with these partner sites to plan, plant and maintain their garden while also learning heart-healthy cooking, food preservation and season extension techniques. According to McKenzie, this work has increased the availability of local food in many communities.

“Between season extension and food preservation, folks are eating and selling things out of their garden or farm year-round,” he says.

At the Cowan Creek Community Center in Letcher County, Ky., canning classes sponsored by Grow Appalachia lead to a greater sense of community. “People from all over Letcher County come to learn how to can like their mom or grandma used to do. It brings people from different economic backgrounds and experiences together,” says McKenzie. “In doing so, they’ve formed this interesting community where preconceptions are dropped.”

In Hindman, Ky., the Hindman Settlement School is reviving its agrarian history by experimenting with low tunnels, which are comprised of small hoops over crop beds that are blanketed with row cover.

This winter, the 114-year-old resident settlement school is busy planning for the spring. In February, it will distribute onion sets and pea seeds to more than 50 family gardeners. Many of these gardeners choose to only have a summer garden, but in the last few years Jacob Mack-Boll and Ashton Huxtable of Hindman have seen more and more gardeners continue to grow well into the winter.

“Some participants have been growing their whole lives,” says Mack-Boll. “They might need help tilling, while others have never grown anything before. So it’s a fun connection to have, bridging the gap between a generation ago and today for the folks we work with and the Hindman Settlement School’s history.”

During February, Mack-Boll and Huxtable will work with their area extension office to help gardeners prepare for the season. They will provide soil testing, advice on soil amendments, and will encourage gardeners to keep good long-term records. “We will talk about cover crops and crop rotation to put nutrients back in the soil,” says Mack-Boll.

Their hope is that this work, as well as their promotion of season extension strategies, will lead to a more vibrant and longer-lasting local farmers’ market. “One struggle is that our farmers’ market is just two months long, July and August,” says Mack-Boll. “With more late and early-season crops, we hope that it can run a little longer.”

Expanding the growing season gives farmers, customers and backyard gardeners alike the opportunity to enjoy local food beyond the traditional summer months. That leads to a greater abundance of healthy, fresh options, and the feeling of self-sufficiency that comes from a flourishing winter harvest. u
Dave Walker is the program manager for Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture’s CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training) program in northwestern North Carolina. He also is working with community stakeholders to establish a seed library and a local food policy council.

Winter Greens with Executive Director Tom Cormons

Tom Cormons’ son stands in the family’s four-season backyard garden. Photo by Tom Cormons

Tom Cormons’ son stands in the family’s four-season backyard garden. Photo by Tom Cormons


For Appalachian Voices’ Executive Director Tom Cormons, gardening and self-sufficiency has always been a passion. He grew up eating fresh, wholesome food and wanted to share the experience with his family when he moved to his current home in Charlottesville, Va.
“I read Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest and learned what’s possible through that book,” says Cormons. “He’s up in Maine and grows a tremendous amount of food year-round. If he can do it in Maine, I can do it more modestly in Virginia. One thing that I learned from him is that certain vegetables and varieties are incredibly cold-tolerant.”

In Cormons’ 500-square-foot garden, two of his favorite home-grown cold-season greens are mâche and miner’s lettuce. Mâche, also known as corn salad, is a small leafy green with a nutty flavor. Miner’s lettuce leaves are even smaller. He plants them densely, harvesting them with scissors. Both are incredibly productive in Charlottesville’s 7a hardiness zone, regrowing after each harvest for several successions.

Other vegetables that he regularly grows and harvests throughout the winter are komatsuna, a mild, mustard-like brassica that is fast-growing and can survive the winter with some protection, as well as kale, arugula, and mustard or turnip greens. Cormons also plants lettuce in November or December, which will lead to a strong harvest in late February or early March and produce until July.

To sustain these crops, Cormons uses several layers of floating row cover resting on top of the plants. This may be one or four layers, depending upon the vegetable and the temperature. With heavy snows, he will sweep the snow from the row cover, as it’s resting on top of the plant. “I haven’t needed to use any other strategies,” Cormons says. “I’m always able to get all the salad greens that we can eat through the cold season, as well as a lot of cooking greens.”

“I grow anything my kids are fired up about trying. They are involved every step of the way, from ordering the seeds through the harvest. That’s one of the most wonderful things about it for me,” he says. “It’s really nice to be able to eat greens picked a few minutes before you eat them, year-around.” Cormons also notes that growing greens in the winter is easier and less labor-intensive than summer since there are no weed, pest or water shortage concerns.

Several things to look out for are: one, get things in on time and two, keep an eye on them. “It doesn’t require a lot of energy or time for the luxury of fresh greens,” says Cormons.

Farming and Fracking

Thursday, February 18th, 2016 - posted by interns

How uncertain property rights affect agriculture in West Virginia

By Dave Walker

Round Right Farm is now a successful family enterprise. But while the Vortigerns are glad they retain their mineral rights, they worry that there might one day be fracking on neighboring land. Photos courtesy Round Right Farm

Round Right Farm is now a successful family enterprise. But while the Vortigerns are glad they retain their mineral rights, they worry that there might one day be fracking on neighboring land. Photos courtesy Round Right Farm

This year will be Steve Vortigern and his wife Sunshine’s tenth year of farming in Preston County, W.Va. On 41 acres, they grow more than 40 different varieties of organic vegetables and raise grass-fed beef for local customers at Round Right Farm.

In the beginning, the Vortigerns were unsure how long they would be able to continue farming. “At that time on our farm, we weren’t really sure how realistic the overall success of our farm was going to be,” he says. The Vortigerns faced many of the same challenges that other beginning farmers face, such as knowing what to grow and how to sell their produce. “It wasn’t until our fourth, fifth, sixth year of farming that we figured a few things out, and we began to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Steve Vortigern says.

During those first years, they also faced the prospect of natural gas companies constructing hydraulic fracking wells on their neighbors’ properties. Just when they were questioning whether farming would be a viable long-term occupation or not, a group of Preston County landowners formed together to offer their mineral rights to a prospective natural gas company, “hoping to get a better price per acre because they were able to offer several thousand acres instead of forty or one hundred acres,” he says.

Round Right Farm is now a successful family enterprise. But while the Vortigerns are glad they retain their mineral rights, they worry that there might one day be fracking on neighboring land. Photos courtesy Round Right Farm

Photo courtesy Round Right Farm

Property ownership in the United States is often described as a bundle of rights. The owner can sell one right, like the right to minerals under the surface, to someone else while still retaining the rights to the surface of the land. When property rights are severed liked this, the property becomes known as a split estate.

“We were very much against the whole idea,” Vortigern says, “However, we were also really afraid that a lot of our neighbors or neighboring farms had already severed their mineral rights.” If hydraulic fracking occurred near their property, he says, it would devastate their way of life. “The land would be devalued. The water would be ruined.”

But at the time, with the future viability of their farm unknown, the couple felt compelled to join their neighbors and recover what they had spent on the land. Luckily, the natural gas company was only interested in land in the western part of Preston County and not the Vortigerns’ farm. In the years since, Steve Vortigern says their farm revenues have outweighed what the natural gas company offered the other landowners in his area. “However, we are still really worried that there will be fracking wells on our neighbors’ properties,” he says.

Divided Rights

The Vortigerns are fortunate in that they retain their mineral rights. Split estates are common in West Virginia, according to Sarah Danly of Vermont Law School and a former intern with West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition. Citing research from the West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization, Danly writes in her report that split estates occur on an estimated 90 percent of the properties in southern West Virginia, 60 to 80 percent in the northern part of the state, and only 40 percent in the northern panhandle.

These estimates hint at the complexity of split estate ownerships in West Virginia. To understand exactly how much land has been severed from the mineral rights beneath would require examining property records at county courthouses. For a surface owner to locate the original deed where the split estate occurred often takes a great deal of time, and experts with SORO and other groups advise hiring an experienced property attorney.

Fish Hawk Acres in Upshur County, W.Va. Photo courtesy West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition

Fish Hawk Acres in Upshur County, W.Va. Photo courtesy West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition

In West Virginia, severing estates occurred at different points in time, as different minerals like coal, oil and now shale gas became profitable. The coal and oil booms at the end of the 19th century saw a huge spike in the splitting of mineral estates, long before hydraulic fracturing was taking place in the Marcellus shale. According to Dr. Alan Collins of West Virginia University’s Division of Resource Management, landowners may have thought that there was little risk of their property being developed for its mineral resources, and therefore may have been more interested in selling their mineral rights.

“Buying land 15 to 20 years ago, you wouldn’t have thought technology would change to allow us to exploit different resources, like Marcellus Shale and Utica Shale,” Collins says. “[New] technology changed people’s expectations about the surface land and how it can be used.”

Surface Concerns

It is difficult for farming and horizontal gas drilling, or fracking, to coexist in close proximity. The impacts of drilling are severe and the remedies for surface owners or landowners near wells are limited and expensive in West Virginia. Some landowners lease their property to natural gas companies and receive compensation. Others are bound by split estates or activities that occur on their neighbors’ properties.

A wellpad site on a split estate in Doddridge County, W.Va., was built by the drilling company to access the minerals beneath the surface owner’s land.  Photo by Molly Moore

A wellpad site on a split estate in Doddridge County, W.Va., was built by the drilling company to access the minerals beneath the surface owner’s land. Photo by Molly Moore

According to Julie Archer of the Surface Owners’ Rights Organization, when natural gas companies establish wells, “They often need a lot of land and preferably a place that’s flat.” Some shale gas well sites are 15 to 20 acres and industrial equipment stays on the site after the actual drilling is complete. “They can end up taking the best parts of people’s land, the best pastures or hay meadows,” Archer says.

For a farmer to not know whether their property or a neighbor’s property is a split estate makes it difficult to obtain credit or make investments in farm infrastructure. The incentives to continue farming or begin to farm in this unstable property environment disappear, according to Bradley Wilson of West Virginia University’s Food Justice Lab. “It’s an issue around who owns what resource,” Wilson says. “Gas and coal versus the resource of soil for food production. Can those two things coexist without there being an undermining? Gas and coal can create some real uncertainty about the viability of a local food economy.”

Round Right Farm is now a successful family enterprise. But while the Vortigerns are glad they retain their mineral rights, they worry that there might one day be fracking on neighboring land. Photos courtesy Round Right Farm

Photo courtesy Round Right Farm

West Virginia SORO, West Virginia University College of Law, and several farmers’ organizations are collaborating with West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition to create a primer for farmers on split estates. Their guide will address concerns about damaged crops, loss of water quality, difficulty obtaining organic certification, or an inability to place property in a conservation easement due to drilling.

“I think that the biggest issue for farming in our state is access to land and mineral severance,” says Liz Spellman of West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition. “With this primer and work, we want to bring in a bipartisan farmer constituency that will show that there’s a huge voice interested in knowing how property ownership works and how split estates can disenfranchise farmers.”

Focus on the Farm

For Steve Vortigern, education for farmers and consumers is essential to the growth of West Virginia’s local food system. “Over the past ten years, we’ve realized that there aren’t a lot of farms in our area that are financially successful,” Vortigern says. “I think the general perception that there’s no money in farming isn’t true. We’ve proven that it can be a viable occupation.”

Round Right Farm is now a successful family enterprise. But while the Vortigerns are glad they retain their mineral rights, they worry that there might one day be fracking on neighboring land. Photos courtesy Round Right Farm

Photo courtesy Round Right Farm

The expanding local food movement has led to a renewed interest in stewardship for the land in a way that rebuilds the soil and provides healthy livelihoods. Because of this, as communities work with the legislature to foster a vibrant local food system, farmers in Appalachia are beginning to speak more and more about split estates.

“I think farmers are very concerned about their land,” Bradley Wilson with WVU’s Food Justice Lab says. “They love the land. They want to feel secure on their land. We have to take who controls property and land very seriously.”

“Severed mineral rights can undermine the concept of growing local food and undermine sustainable development in West Virginia,” Wilson says. “If you want to retain folks and promote new farmers, you have to promote land. You have to be honest about the barriers to farming in Appalachia and West Virginia.”

Split Estate Resource Guide

How can you find out if you own your mineral rights?
For a West Virginia landowner to learn whether they also own their mineral rights can itself be problematic. According to West Virginia University College of Law Professor Alison Peck, “The only way to know for sure, whether you own your mineral rights, is to go to the courthouse and look at the original deed.” This work may require an attorney, who would be able to draw conclusions and offer advice to landowners.

“I’ve come to realize that despite how common and prevalent mineral severance is in West Virginia, many landowners do not know much about it.” says Peck. “From a lawyer’s perspective, it is startling.”

Would it be possible to buy back mineral rights?

Yes, but it is not common, Peck says. First, a surface owner would need to hire an attorney to discover who owns the mineral estate, which can be expensive. This effort can be frustrated by the further splitting of mineral estates between different corporate entities or between specific minerals. Once an individual determines the mineral estate’s ownership structure, buying back the rights may cost more than some landowners could afford. “I think the corporate entities are probably holding those rights as an investment and may not be interested in selling them back,” says Peck.

Could a surface owner seek compensation from the mineral owner?

In addition to pursuing damages for nuisance or negligence, two state laws allow West Virginia surface owners to seek compensation from companies after drilling operations have ceased. The laws, however, have specific limits, such as only awarding compensation toward lost income, market value of lost crops and lost value of used surface land. The law does not cover the surface owner’s future plans for the site.

Where can surface owners go from here?

“The biggest complaint that we have heard is that the landowner didn’t have any say,” says Julie Archer of West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization. “One of the things that SORO has advocated for is that individuals should actually know what they’re buying.”

“When SORO first formed, one of the of the things that we pushed for was a Surface Owner’s Bill of Rights, modeled on landowner protection legislation that were passed in Colorado and New Mexico,” Archer says. This proposed legislation would empower surface owners by implementing requirements such as earlier notice of planned drilling activities, a face-to-face meeting between the landowner and mineral owner, an opportunity for pre-drilling mediation, and improved compensation that also reflects the reduced value of land near the drilling activities.

According to Archer, the retroactive nature of West Virginia’s surface owner compensation laws is a “shortcoming,” and noted that a Surface Owner’s Bill of Rights “is primarily designed to give landowners more say before the drilling occurs.”

“The best thing that people can do now is keep a journal and take pictures. You have to have documentation of before, during, and after to have a good case [for compensation].”

Appalachian Farmers to Benefit from Remote-Sensing Data

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015 - posted by interns

An expanded partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and NASA could benefit farmers looking to reduce the effects of climate change on crop yields.

The agreement, announced this summer, promises expanded efforts to gather soil moisture data using satellite remote-sensing. This data could be compiled into maps that would improve farmers’ ability to forecast weather and water availability, as well as provide an early-warning system against drought.

Though higher elevation regions such as central Appalachia are not expected to warm as quickly as lowland areas, according to the USDA, extreme weather fluctuations may produce more frequent droughts and flooding. Federal researchers also say irrigation demands on freshwater resources could create water conflicts in a region where annual precipitation ranges from 30-85 inches.
— Chris Robey

Resourceful and Resilient: June/July issue of The Appalachian Voice celebrates farmers

Friday, June 21st, 2013 - posted by molly
Farmers Holly Whitesides and Andy Bryant grace the cover of the June/July 2013 issue.

Farmers Holly Whitesides and Andy Bryant grace the cover of the June/July 2013 issue.

From determined Virginia cattle farmers to entrepreneurial vegetable growers in eastern Kentucky, the latest issue of The Appalachian Voice showcases the resourcefulness and resilience of our mountain farmers.

In our features, Today’s Farming Frontier looks at how growers are adapting to changing markets. A special three-page section explores Appalachian farm ownership. In A Matter of Self-Preservation, writer Matt Grimley explores how aspiring farmers are struggling for land access and the ways family farmers are passing down the business. He examines the issue from a land ownership point of view in Making it Last, where he studies how aging farmers can plan for their farm’s future.

States have consistenty failed to protect water resources from toxic coal ash. But the U.S. House of Representatives just passed a bill to prevent the EPA from doing anything about it.

States have consistenty failed to protect water resources from toxic coal ash. But the U.S. House of Representatives just passed a bill to prevent the EPA from doing anything about it.

Former Appalachian Voices editorial intern Davis Wax explores the controversial aftermath of pesticide use in Toxic Legacy: Yesterday’s Pesticides, Today’s Problem. And in Addressing Food Insecurity, writer David Brewer speaks with some of the movers-and-shakers who are working to close the gap between healthy, local food and the consumers who need it most.

In addition to those farm-oriented features, we take several shorter looks at trends in Appalachian agriculture. Our editorial intern Alix John discovers the world of seed-saving and heirloom plants, and Brian Sewell examines how climate change might impact farming in our region, and surveys the growth of Appalachian agritourism.
(more…)

Addressing Food Insecurity

Thursday, June 20th, 2013 - posted by interns

Finding New Ways To Feed Families

Story by David Brewer

This harvest is what Rick Cavey, a Virginia farmer and local food activist, calls a "gator salad" – a collection of fresh vegetables in the back of his John Deer Gator. Photo by Rick Cavey

This harvest is what Rick Cavey, a Virginia farmer and local food activist, calls a “gator salad” – a collection of fresh vegetables in the back of his John Deer Gator. Photo by Rick Cavey

The welcome arrival of spring and summer in Appalachia represents that magical time of year when, instead of bundling up for a trip to the grocery store, we toss on a pair of sandals and head to the farmers markets to peruse the colorful and delicious bounty of locally grown fruits, vegetables and meats.

For some residents of our region, however, access to healthy local food is not as easy. Food insecurity, broadly defined as limited access to nutritious foods, affects roughly 15 percent of Americans, according to a 2011 U.S. Department of Agriculture report. Across Appalachia, the proximity to farmers markets and grocery stores, percentage of homes relying on federal food assistance, and general income levels vary greatly.

According to a 2011 study by the Virginia consulting group, SCALE, Inc., that compared similar foods in six states, most farmers markets in Appalachia and the Southeast are highly competitive with supermarkets for supplying basic commodities. Regional farmers markets are also increasingly accepting food stamps. But USDA data shows that swathes of the region still lack access to local foods, and many face tough choices at mealtime about how to healthfully feed and nourish their families.

Throughout the mountains, there are bright spots where individuals and organizations are eliminating barriers to locally raised food and livestock. With a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work, the nurturing and expansion of these and similar programs could provide communities with a variety of fresh, affordable sustenance for years to come.

Grayson LandCare
Southwest Virginia

According to its website, Grayson LandCare is a “locally organized group of farmers, landowners and residents concerned about economic and environmental problems.”

That’s putting it mildly.

Founded by Jerry Moles in 2005, Grayson LandCare and its members encourage responsible land care practices and address food insecurity issues in Grayson County, Va., and the surrounding mountain counties in Virginia and North Carolina.

“Grayson LandCare is based on the idea of working from the grassroots up, hoping to monetize farming,” says Moles. “It has to be driven by the farmers.”

Members of Grayson LandCare, with the help of Heifer International and the Central Appalachian Network, have been a driving force behind developing a master plan for the Appalachian Regional Food Hub, a project that seeks to connect local food growers and buyers. Members have also been behind the establishment and operation of farmers markets in Sparta, N.C., and Independence, Va.

Additionally, Grayson LandCare is involved in programs such as Orchards of Hope, which works in conjunction with Heifer International and Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture’s Seeds of Change Appalachia initiative to plant fruit trees. The trees are placed in community gardens and near schools, making them widely accessible and emphasizing community wellness.

Moles and others have spent considerable time identifying the various obstacles facing their region’s farmers, including the pressing need for a local abattoir, or slaughterhouse, for more cost-effective processing of the area’s steady flow of livestock. Grayson LandCare Vice President Rick Cavey maintains that area livestock farmers could command up to three times the current price if such a facility were established.

Working feverishly to spread the gospel of local food production, Cavey has helped add 12 local producers in Grayson, Ashe and Alleghany counties to the regional New River Organic Growers roster of farms. He is a lynchpin of the Appalachian Regional Food Hub, and has helped organize winter workshops for farmers while also seeking outside funding from groups like the Central Appalachian Network and Heifer International to further the group’s mission.

“Food security is an issue, and if we can grow our own supply, we won’t be so dependent on energy prices and commodity prices,” Cavey says. “I just think that growing food is a great way to make a living, and I’m trying to show people that they can. If I can turn 12 people to grow food and another 20 people to eat that food, I’m pretty happy.”

For more information on Grayson LandCare, click to graysonlandcare.org.

One Acre Cafe
Johnson City, Tenn.

With their opening date slated for September of this year, One Acre Cafe in Johnson City, Tenn., is another example of a community-based solution to hunger. The problem first came to the attention of the non-profit restaurant’s Executive Director Jan Orchard during her tenure as a school teacher.

“I used to teach first and second grade and I noticed that the students were really hungry,” Orchard says. “I became more aware of the problem of hunger and food insecurity not only in northeast Tennessee, but throughout the country.”

The One Acre Cafe plans to operate on the “Eat what you want; Pay what you can” ethos, a model that is spreading across the nation.

“[These] cafes are somewhat unique in that they have to appeal to a wide range of individuals,” she says. “They have to appeal to business people, as well as a person who has fallen through the cracks and perhaps lost their job. We’re also hoping to promote a dialogue between the different kinds of patrons that will be helpful.”

“What we’re really doing is going back to our roots, which is the community coming together to help one another,” she adds. “As my son Bryan says, these are folks that have found themselves on the other side of plenty.”

Thanks to the landlords, the cafe will occupy a 5,000-square foot space rent-free for the first year. And with a volunteer architect, volunteer interior designer and ample supply of donated materials, the restaurant is a shining example of community support.

“People are rallying to make this a place,” says Orchard. “We’re just the facilitators for the community to come together and bring the power to create this cafe. If the community is behind it, it will be something unbelievable. And we all sense that is something that’s going to happen. I think it’s that willingness we’re all feeling.”

One Acre Cafe is not the first operation of its kind in the region. The F.A.R.M. Cafe in Boone, N.C., exchanges meals for an hour of work for diners who are unable to pay. In Asheville, N.C., Rosetta’s Kitchen offers a donation-based plate and planning is underway for a sliding-scale restaurant called Sauté.

One Acre Cafe will be located at 603 W. Walnut Street, Johnson City, Tenn.

Farm-To-Schools
Kentucky

Students line up for local foods provided by Kentucky’s Farm-to-School program. Photo courtesy University of Kentucky

Students line up for local foods provided by Kentucky’s Farm-to-School program. Photo courtesy University of Kentucky

For most people who grew up eating school lunches, it is unlikely that those trips through the buffet line are their most mouth-watering memories. Meals consisted primarily of processed foods coming out of large tin cans, not fresh from the garden. For students in Kentucky, however, lunchtime is now a lot tastier and healthier with the burgeoning Farm-To-School program, which is helping students access local food on an everyday basis.

Introduced nationally in 2010 and adopted shortly thereafter in Kentucky, the program helps to connect local food to school menus. Tina Garland, Farm-to-School program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, is spearheading the state’s efforts to give school lunches a healthy boost from right down the road.

“From what we have seen, it’s not more expensive to buy local,” Garland says, noting that getting individual food service directors on board has been key to the spread of the program. “You have to be very creative because not one farm-to-school program is exactly alike. What works for one school won’t necessarily work for the others.”

According to Garland, the program benefits all involved. Food service directors can receive rebates through the Kentucky Proud program, which refunds a portion of the money spent on in-state growers back to the purchasing school. Kids are also responding positively to the program’s efforts, favoring foods from their home state.

“[The program] is continuing to grow,” Garland says. “Our goal is to have it in every county in Kentucky, but it’s solely dependent on food service directors. They make the decision whether or not to participate. But it is growing.”

Learn more at: farmtoschool.org/ky.

Road Map for the Food Economy
West Virginia

Last spring, students and staff at Tucker County High School in West Virginia finished building a greenhouse at an elevation of 3,500 feet, one of the East Coast’s highest. And in Martinsburg, the Veterans Affairs Medical Center kitchen purchases local foods with the savings from a kitchen waste reduction program.

Across the Mountain State, farm-to-school projects are proving that West Virginia, a state that suffers from a 12 percent diabetes rate, is also fertile ground for change. Federal officials with the Appalachian Regional Commission and the USDA have lauded the state for its Road Map for the Food Economy, a plan to boost access to healthy foods while strengthening the agricultural economy.

The map was developed in 2012 by the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition, a project of the West Virginia Community Development Hub; organizers refer to the program as a “food charter” that offers both a positive vision and a way to measure progress.

Learn more at: wvhub.org/wvffc.