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Appalachian Harvest, Growing for the Future

by Lynda McDaniel

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Photo of farmer Martin Miles

Martin Miles has been farming all his life, tending the rich southwestern Virginia soil the way his father taught him some 50 years ago. But over the last several years, as he's watched his tobacco production allotment shrink, he's worried that the only way of life he knows might soon end.

"I'm 59 now, and it's hard for a guy my age to start over again," Miles says at his farm in Stickleyville, Virginia. "Every farmer loves the land—it's our life. I just love getting up in the morning and going outside and hearing the birds. But the income around here is hard right now."

This year, Miles has gotten a reprieve—thanks to Appalachian Harvest, an organic produce program developed by Abingdon-based Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD). It's just one of several programs designed to tackle a number of trends imposing economic and environmental hardships in this region. Those trends include the steady decline in the number of family farms, the impact of coal-mining sedimentation and agricultural chemicals, and the significant reduction in tobacco production.

"We're working on ways to make farming profitable in a sustainable way so that farmland can be more competitive with alternatives such as development," says Anthony Flaccavento, executive director of ASD. "Groups ranging from economic development people on one end of the spectrum to environmentalists and grassroots community organizations on the other have come together to address the conundrum so many communities face—sacrificing jobs in order to preserve the environment. Many of these communities feel they had lost on both counts, with high unemployment and problems with pollution from coal mining, pesticides, and so on. Together we're working to find ways to integrate the local economy into the ecosystem."

An Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) startup grant awarded in 1995 helped establish ASD (then known as the Clinch Powell Sustainable Development Initiative), which serves Dickenson, Wise, Russell, Lee, Scott, and Washington Counties in Virginia, and Hancock, Hawkins, Sullivan, and Greene Counties in Tennessee. Early ASD programs focused on sustainable forestry and collaborative efforts with cooperatives of small, organic farms. Initially a produce broker connected farmers to area restaurants, but a cost analysis revealed that the co-ops lost money every year because the restaurant accounts were small and too widely dispersed.

"While we aren't abandoning the idea of direct relationships between farmers and consumers, we realized we needed to get more traditional farmers involved, and we needed bigger markets," Flaccavento adds. "Farmers used to putting out two or three acres of tobacco and conventionally raised vegetables simply didn't want to mess with 200 feet of arugula or 75 specialty tomato plants."

The search for larger orders naturally led to the supermarket. ASD's first large contract came from White's Fresh Foods, a local, family-owned, 18-store chain. It was a good start, but the group quickly learned that without a brand-name identity, their products were easily lost in the supermarket culture. Assistance came in the form of a 1999 "sectoral" grant from ARC, which encourages the economic development strategy of targeting assistance to industry sectors with unique competitive advantage in a region. (In this case, the sector targeted was value-added agricultural products.) With the ARC grant, ASD developed the brand name Appalachian Harvest. The timing couldn't have been better for Martin Miles, who had taken part in a number of ASD-sponsored workshops on such topics as organic production and no-tillage techniques, and was interested in trying organic farming.

"ASD has helped me and a lot of other farmers," Miles says. "This new way is good for the earth, and it's good for the people who eat the produce—and that's the main thing right there."

Earning Customer Loyalty

The strategy behind the Appalachian Harvest name—which projects a sense of place and freshness—was critical. Because these farms are small and use organic production methods, the produce costs more, so survival in a competitive marketplace depends on establishing a local connection with customers and earning their loyalty.

To strengthen the Appalachian Harvest identity, Tom Peterson, manager of ASD's sustainable agriculture program, oversaw the redesign and expansion of the Appalachian Harvest image. With the help of marketing students from nearby East Tennessee State University, in Johnson City, they developed a new logo and created profiles of participating farmers. They then made the materials available to the stores handling Appalachian Harvest produce—about 60 of the 86 Food City stores in Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky; approximately 22 Whole Foods Market stores in the greater Washington, D.C., area; and about 20 of the 30 Ukrop's grocery stores in central Virginia, as well as several other commercial outlets.

"Our best educational opportunity is right there when people are cruising through the grocery store," Peterson says. "We've tried to create compelling materials to impress upon the customer the fact that our produce is fresher than something shipped from far away and that they are supporting a method of farming that to a much greater degree respects their local ecology. Part of that educational process includes helping consumers understand that a farmer usually gets about 20 cents of a dollar. We find that most people don't like that. When they buy a tomato, they'd like to think that farmers get most of that money. By participating in a system like Appalachian Harvest, the farmer can get close to 60 or 70 cents of that dollar. And that's our whole purpose—to give as much back to the grower as we can."

With a grant from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission, ASD converted half of Miles's tobacco barn (an in-kind donation from Miles) into a 2,400-square-foot grading and packing facility for Appalachian Harvest produce. It receives produce from 24 farmers, which is cleaned and packed by up to six employees before being loaded onto tractor-trailers headed for the supermarkets.

In spite of the whims of nature that can lead to gaps and gluts in supply, the process is working. Food City and Ukrop's have already committed to expanding their programs next year, and Kroger and Food Lion have expressed interest in stocking Appalachian Harvest produce.

"We like working with local farmers because we like to keep the money here," says Larry Harkleroad, director of produce operations for Food City. And there are other benefits to using Appalachian Harvest growers as well: "Something grown 2,500 miles away has to be picked when it's not as mature as it could be, so the produce that's harvested at its peak [locally] gives our customers a better-tasting product. We're going to meet with the folks at Appalachian Harvest sometime before the growing season starts to discuss how we can expand and improve the way we work together next year."

This first year for the Appalachian Harvest program has been about building identity and learning which products supermarkets want to stock. Next year the group plans to introduce new varieties of produce more typical of a farmers' market than a grocery store.

"We don't want our organic produce to look exactly like the conventional," Flaccavento explains. "We want to try some interesting heirloom varieties—such as the German Johnson, which is a big pink tomato like a Brandywine, and Mr. Stripey, which is a yellow tomato with a reddish center that is just beautiful."

A New Way of Farming

This new way of farming is catching on in the fields as well. When Peterson travels the region to visit farmers in the program, he finds that even veteran farmers are getting excited.

"The first time they picked one of these tomatoes, they would say, 'Good heavens, what is that?' But by the end of the season they're saying, 'That's a great tomato. I just pick it off the vine, and I can't believe how good it is,' " Peterson says. "One of our farmers, who's been growing potatoes the conventional way for years, recently told me, 'You know, I tried those Kennebecs from the organic field, and the ones that I grew regular, and the organic Kennebecs just tasted better.' "

Good ideas at ASD multiply like zucchini in July. Peterson is working with the Jubilee Project and the Appalachian Spring Cooperative, both in Sneedville, Tennessee, to experiment with value-added products such as canned tomatoes and fruit preserves. These would not only extend Appalachian Harvest's sales season beyond the typical 25 weeks for spring and summer crops, but also make good use of seconds-produce that doesn't measure up in shape and size. To take full advantage of the landscape, which is more amenable to pasture than cropland, the group is exploring ways to support production of high-quality meats and poultry. And hoophouses—unheated greenhouses—hold several advantages for the Appalachian Harvest growers.

"Not only can earlier and later crops extend the growing season four to five weeks at both ends, but again, they can help build loyalty by keeping Appalachian Harvest on the shelves longer and being more convenient for the customer," Flaccavento says.

But ideas need time to grow. Both Peterson and John Humphreys, who manages Appalachian Harvest's marketing efforts, were hired just before the busy growing season this year. As crops fade with the onset of winter, the two welcome the opportunity to focus on new programs.

"I can't wait to see what we can learn to apply to the next season," Humphreys says. "I'm creating spreadsheets and analyzing which peppers did better, for example, or where we overproduced on some items and underproduced on others. We also have several new potential customers to follow up with."

As ASD keeps more farmers working in sustainable agriculture, prospects for preserving the area's farmland grow. John Mullins, another farmer in the program and Martin Miles's business partner, says that farmers just need a little help to stay on the farm.

"There's so much to learn, and it takes so many years to learn it, but ASD has made a real difference. When you're with people with a like interest, your enthusiasm feeds each other, and the learning curve is greatly accelerated. Sure, farmers need to try something different, but we're scared. We just need somebody to pat us on the back every now and then and say it's all right. If we've got somebody to take a little bit of that worry and share it, that helps a lot."

Focus on Sustainable Forestry

Extracting timber in a sustainable way and creating a value-added market for the wood has been a focus of Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD) since 1995. Several recent developments have increased the marketability of the operation and its products.

In April 2001, ASD opened a Sustainable Woods processing center with a 20,000-board-foot dry kiln in Castlewood, Virginia. Two professional foresters are now on staff at the center: Dennis Desmond, manager of the sustainable forestry program for ASD, and Emily Duncan, full-time outreach forester. They offer landowners advice about appropriate harvesting activity and develop sustainable forestry management plans that include inventories of tree species, evaluation of forest health, and inventories of wildlife potential. When appropriate, the foresters mark trees to be cut, with an eye toward regeneration, biodiversity, and improving tree seed stock.

The center means a steady and increased supply of environmentally friendly, value-added lumber for the marketplace. Research indicates that consumers, such as homeowners, architects, and interior designers, who want sustainable wood may be willing to pay a higher price for it, which helps increase the viability of this method of timber harvesting.

Negotiations are under way with builders and architects in the region to use ASD wood in public buildings such as libraries and other educational centers. This use, in turn, can create ongoing educational opportunities through signs and educational materials that explain the importance of sustainable forestry and the use and purchase of these forest products.

"These demonstration projects can help raise awareness," adds Anthony Flaccavento, executive director of ASD. "But for the most part, we want to sell the majority of our lumber to average people building and adding onto their homes. It's very important to us that this 'green' wood not become some kind of elite product. We want to make it available to everyone."

Lynda McDaniel is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Virginia.