Field-to-Table Strategy Helps Tobacco Growers Switch to More Profitable Crops
|Martin Miles is one of 25 farmers in southwest Virginia who have made the successful switch from growing tobacco to a diversified mix of crops and specialty vegetables. Their new cooperative packs produce at Miles tobacco barn, part of which he reserves for that purpose. |
Photo by Ann Hawthorne
Following the market, forward-thinking farmers in southwest Virginia and eastern Tennessee re-tooled their operations to grow a wide range of vegetables, from the traditional to the exotic. Working with Appalachian Sustainable Development, a nonprofit organization in Abingdon, Va., about 25 farmers now supply three supermarket chains representing more than 100 stores. Others have begun working in a commercial kitchen that enables them to add value to their raw products.
The project marks a major shift for the Appalachian-area growers, who for decades grew tobacco before the market tumbled. The late 1990s lackluster economy and limited opportunities to earn a good living combined to give the region the unwelcome distinction of having the highest unemployment rate in Virginia. Accordingly, Appalachian Sustainable Development, or ASD, launched a project to teach area farmers about sustainable agriculture, from environmentally sound growing practices to reaching high-value markets.
The organization held about 75 on-farm workshops to teach production fundamentals, from planting cover crops to irrigation to harvesting. The training evolved as ASD staffers learned more about their audiences needs.
Some of our early workshops went from a market garden orientation to 10-acre, tractor-based farms, said Anthony Flaccavento, ASD director. We needed the farmers to teach us how to apply our ideas on a large scale.
Research conducted with scientists at Virginia Tech focused on real-life problems such as controlling tomato blight and cucumber beetles. The researchers conducted their experiments on 10 area farms, involving farmers in research design and monitoring results.
Working with producers and designing workshops more applicable to the area helped ASD gain credibility with the larger-scale farmers, who were seeking more profitable alternatives. ASD pledged to find a new market for certain products, so farmers began growing tomatoes and other vegetables to meet the promised demand.
Meanwhile, the organization beat the bushes to find markets in the tri-cities of southwest Virginia: Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol. Small health food stores and specialty shops were happy to take local and sustainably produced food, but their shelf space was limited.
Then, ASD approached a local grocery store chain, and the project took off. Flaccavento had learned that the grocery store wanted to begin offering organic produce, so the organization seized the opportunity.
It was just a modest, working-class chain that decided to give organic a try, he said. We started small with a partner that was willing to grow along with us. It was a perfect fit.
ASD brokered the deal in the fall, then approached farmers to present the opportunity for the coming season. The project gained rapid acceptance in large part because a few young tobacco growers known in the farming community agreed to try growing a few acres of vegetables for the first time. They were willing to take risks, Flaccavento said. The next year, it opened the door for us to go to other farmers.
Now, up to 35 farmers supply the grocery stores under a new Appalachian Harvest label, growing organic produce on anywhere from 1 to 16 acres. Their annual gross returns vary, depending on acreage, skills and a good deal of luck, from $3,000 to $10,000 per acre or half a million dollars for the fledgling group.
Other farmers, who have used the areas first commercial kitchen at the Jubilee Center in nearby Hancock County, Tenn., are developing high-value products like marinades and sweet potato butter. The kitchen, converted from an old rural school house, opens doors to specialty shops that pay a premium for unusual products.
With three-quarters of the farmers suffering from real economic distress before the project, and earning real dollars since, ASD has achieved one of its chief goals to revitalize the regional economy. The farmers see our Appalachian Harvest brand as their project, said Flaccavento. Its very exciting.
Former tobacco farmers in the Appalachian region of southern Virginia and eastern Tennessee
|Educating Team |
Appalachian Sustainable Development
|Challenges Addressed |
Little experience with vegetable production
Little access to capital
Reluctance to try new crops
|Connection Strategies |
Gaining support from leaders in the farm community
Promise of substantial, high-value new markets
|Teaching Methods |
Involving farmers as collaborators in university-led research