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Sustaining the Harvest

by Elizabeth Hunter

Chad Miano's admiration for horses dates back to a part-time job he had on a farm whose owner relied on horsepower rather than gas or diesel power to work the land. "The more I saw of horses, the more I liked them," the husky Duffield, Virginia, resident says. "But I didn't think I could make a living farming with them."

Miano has found another way to use horsepower to earn a living, however. Back in the fall of 1994, he heard about a program that taught a method of environmentally sensitive timber harvesting using horses rather than skidders to get logs out of the woods. He signed right up. "Within a couple of days of beginning my training, I knew I would have to give horse logging a try. I really loved it," he says. In his mid 20s now, Miano didn't have the money to invest in horses or equipment. But his trainers put him in touch with BusinesStart, an Abingdon, Virginia-based microenterprise program that provides business training and small loans to entrepreneurs. After completing a night business course and drawing up a business plan, Miano was approved for a loan that covered the cost of a pair of workhorses, a horse trailer and a truck to pull it, a knuckle boom loader, and other odds and ends. Some of his equipment is as old as he is, but Miano doesn't care. It works, and it allowed him to go into business for himself.

Now in his third year as a horse logger, Miano has become proficient in cutting trees to keep from damaging surrounding timber and skilled at guiding his team on difficult terrain. So accomplished has he become at the hands-on side of his business that he now conducts training sessions like the one that gave him his start. He's learned, too, how to negotiate for timber boundaries with landowners, and how to grade logs. "There are a thousand things a person needs to know to be successful in this business, but this is my profession," he says proudly. "I want to be the best horse logger there is." Horse loggers who haven't been trained in ecologically sound harvesting practices can do more damage than a logger who uses machinery in a sensitive manner, Miano says. Training teaches horse loggers to snake logs along tracks barely wider than a game trail, and to repair the tracks before they leave the boundary.

Miano Horse Logging is the kind of economic enterprise the Clinch Powell Sustainable Development Initiative (CPSDI)—a nonprofit organization incorporated in October 1995—wants to foster in the six southwest Virginia and four northeast Tennessee counties it serves. Regional employment in coal mining and in beef, dairy, and tobacco farming—the area's longtime economic mainstays—has been declining for more than a decade. Unemployment and poverty rates in several of CPSDI's counties far exceed state averages.

Yet the region, with its mixture of forested ridges and undulating farmland, is scenic. Despite scars in parts of its landscape—a legacy of past extraction of its bountiful natural resources—its air and water quality are good. And it's blessed with a resident population that Center on Rural Development (CORD) director Greg Brittingham characterizes as "hardworking, smart, and resilient."

A New Vision

All this suggested a new regional economic development strategy to the regional consortium of more than 20 community organizations, small businesses, and public agencies that began meeting in 1993, and eventually started calling itself the Clinch Powell Sustainable Development Forum. "We met for more than a year as a network, an unincorporated entity," says CPSDI director Anthony Flaccavento.

Instead of another round of extraction and exportation of raw materials, forum members envisioned economic revitalization in terms of "sustainable development" designed to perpetuate natural resources—and to "add value" before they leave the region. "We believe in economic development that is lasting, local, ecologically sound, and good for people; that will enhance their skills and capacity for resourcefulness," Flaccavento says.

The coalition identified three priority strategies: sustainable forestry/wood products, sustainable agriculture, and nature tourism. Each, they believed, had potential for simultaneously building a healthier local economy and regenerating the region's natural ecosystems.

Sustainable forestry and agriculture have absorbed most of CPSDI's energies since a grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission Co-Chairmen's Committee fund "helped us open our doors," Flaccavento says. CPSDI has done a lot more than train horse loggers in its sustainable forestry/wood products initiative. It ran a series of advertisements in local and regional newspapers to find landowners interested in seeing their land logged with horses, then contracted with a forestry procurement specialist to assess the timber stands. "We had a tremendous response to the ads," Flaccavento says, "but the timber on some tracts was too immature to harvest; some was on land that was too steep. Still, we are finding plenty of boundaries suitable to keep a small number of horse loggers busy." "The way I log a place," Miano explains, "I leave more than I cut. And what I leave, I leave in good shape. Each of the trees I don't cut will gain in volume and will be higher-quality timber worth more when I come back again in 10 or 15 years. That way, we sustain the harvest. The landowner may make less money right away than if he had his boundary clear-cut, but he'll make more money in the long run."

Adding Value, Reaping Results

To add value to wood products before they leave the region, CPSDI built a small solar dry kiln at a sawmill in Fort Blackmore—which nearly paid for itself with the first two loads of wood it dried—and has sponsored several workshops on wood drying. "A dried red oak board retails for four or five times the price a comparable green board will bring. Kiln drying is an important means of adding value, yet our region is sorely lacking in dry kilns," Flaccavento says. Another solar kiln with five times the capacity of the first is on CPSDI's drawing board. The larger kiln is expected to net CPSDI $20,000 to $25,000 annually to plow back into its sustainable forestry effort.

CPSDI has also held several demonstrations and training sessions in the use of portable band saws, which can be set up at logging sites to eliminate the expense of transporting large logs to sawmills. While the portable saws cut more slowly than standard sawmill equipment, they produce superior boards that command higher prices. Local availability of high-quality lumber should make the region a more attractive place for cabinetmakers and furniture manufacturers to set up shop, Miano says. "We're crazy to ship our logs out when we could be doing something with them here. This place should be covered with furniture plants." Meanwhile, CPSDI is identifying markets in and outside of the region willing to pay top dollar for lumber harvested in an environmentally sensitive manner. It's also developing certification standards (similar to the certification required to market agricultural products as "organically grown") for labeling such wood products. "Our excitement at this stage is that CPSDI is beginning to realize some of its goals in sustainable forestry. It's seeing modest gains in employment, which we think will increase over time," Brittingham says. "Perhaps of equal or more importance, it has identified a product with fairly high market value. It's just discovered the tip of the iceberg, in terms of market. Some people will buy wood products specifically because of the environmentally sensitive harvesting. For others, that's nice, but the crucial factor is the quality of the product. Over time, that's what it will boil down to—that they can deliver a quality product."

If CPSDI's fledgling forestry products initiative is already reaping results, so too is its sustainable agriculture program. Among its initiatives: training crop and livestock farmers in intensive sustainable production practices; developing and expanding marketing networks linking consumers and restaurants with producers of "biologically raised" (grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides) produce; and test-marketing value-added agricultural products like the Mountain Gift Baskets and Garden Trugs it sold last Christmas.

The honeysuckle vine baskets and trugs, fashioned from recycled pallet board, contain locally produced items like honey, jams and jellies, sorghum molasses, herb teas, dried peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, and "popcorn on the cob." The Nature Conservancy is considering offering the trugs through one of its gift catalogs. That's a great opportunity—and a big challenge—for CPSDI, which must be sure the craftspeople and farmers it's working with can meet customer demand, Flaccavento says.

CPSDI agricultural networks in two Tennessee and three Virginia counties already connect farms growing biologically raised produce with 15 restaurants, four wholesale/retail outlets, and 135 subscribers, who pay farmers $300 to $500 up front and receive weekly baskets of produce for 22 to 26 weeks. One of the participating farms is operated by Hancock County High School, in Sneedville, Tennessee, where students are learning to grow and market biologically raised produce. Efforts are also under way to interest major grocery chains in buying participating farmers' produce.

A Broad Base of Support

CPSDI's agriculture initiative has drawn broad-based support from farmers, community organizations, the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service, and agriculture faculty from the University of Tennessee, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and Virginia State University, Flaccavento says. A measure of its success is the two-year, $173,000 grant it received in April from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. That grant "will provide a tremendous boost to our efforts to help diversify and strengthen the local agricultural economy," Flaccavento says. It will be used in several ways: to underwrite technical assistance and on-farm research aimed at helping the region's farmers make a transition to sustainable agriculture; to educate consumers; and to cultivate markets for local, sustainably raised fruits, vegetables, meats, and specialty items.

It's a slow change that's occurring for farmers long used to using herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers, says Scott County Agricultural Extension Agent Mike Cassell. But CPSDI's sustainable agriculture initiative is making headway by holding demonstrations and field days at farms with sustainable agriculture operations. "Success breeds success," Cassell says, partly because farmers are looking for additional sources of income, and the sustainable agriculture products market is expanding. And Cassell believes farmers are naturally interested in sustainable agriculture. "It goes along with their desire to have a clean environment, clean water, and healthy people," he says. Inexpensive in terms of out-of-pocket expenditures for those who own land and have the requisite labor resources, sustainable agriculture is a way to produce a wholesome product that is also a moneymaker. Cassell knows that firsthand. For the past three years, he and his family have been growing strawberries for the weekly produce baskets that go to subscribers in his area. "I couldn't make a living at it, but it provides us with a good supplemental income. My demand usually outruns my supply. It's a very good market."

CPSDI and its partners have laid a good foundation for sustainable development in southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee, Brittingham believes. "Our office was involved at the beginning, helping the coalition put together its strategic plan, and we've tracked CPSDI's progress since then. One thing that the region has had to struggle with over the years is image. . . . CPSDI is helping turn that around. It's getting the word out that [this area] has quality products to offer, produced by local people. That's going to be good for the region in general."

Elizabeth Hunter is a freelance writer based in Bakersville, North Carolina.