Nestled in the mountains of Luray, in the northern part of the Shenandoah Valley, David Sours’ produce farm is one of many in the Shenandoah and Rappahannock river watersheds to benefit from a grant supporting farm-to-table connections.
“Everybody believes local food is an easy thing and take it for granted but it is complicated, especially on the distribution side,” said Dale Gardner, field scientist and value chain facilitator. “People don’t realize how labor intensive it is.”
Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture oversees the project that focuses on encouraging best practices on farms in the northern area of the state. VT also conducts the “Virginia Market Ready Farm to Restaurant Workshop” that is open to farmers and producers from across Virginia.
Eric Bendfeldt, extension specialist, community viability, at Virginia Cooperative Extension, said, “Part of what we do is address how to build capacity for farmers to enter the restaurant and institution markets.”
Dale Gardner is tasked with improving the health of waterways by finding common ground around water quality improvements, soil quality, and farm-to-table relationships. He is the primary contact working with farmers who grow produce, although “many of the same issues apply to livestock farmers,” he said.
The grant, funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and awarded to Virginia Tech, is founded on the premise that helping farmers – or “producers” of agricultural products – to adopt and implement Best Management Practices (BMP’s) will ultimately improve their ability to access and retain a wider array of sustainability-minded distributors and consumers and become more profitable.
Bendfeldt said, “The grant helps them encourage restaurants, institutions, and the general public to work with producers to buy local and regional food from farmers who are also good environmental stewards.”
“We’ve worked with more than 20 farmers who are adopting or developing continuous improvement plans to reduce nutrients and sediment from leaving their farm and entering waterways,” Bendfeldt said. “The overall goal is to create a culture of conservation from the farm-to-the-table so it’s a win for producers, consumers, businesses.”
This approach is being fine-tuned and can serve as a model for other communities to develop a commitment to a sustainable food system. Bendfeldt said, “In the workshop we emphasize that you have to differentiate yourself in some way, through a brand, or label, or in telling your story. Are you a third or fourth generation farmer? Tell about the BMP’s you have installed and what you are doing to protect water quality and how you are being a good water steward.”
Farmer David Sours believes the improvements he made on his farm, especially strip tilling aimed at reducing soil erosion, resulted in “substantial economic impact for the good—it has reduced labor for us and has made some of my crops a little more economically feasible.”
He has contracted with DC Central Kitchen, a large non-profit in the District of Columbia, and he supplies broccoli, sweet corn, and buttermilk squash for their farm-to-school arm. “The last three years those crops have been grown on the strip tilling model,” he said. “We are tilling 70 percent less soil and production has stayed the same.”
“Whenever you expand into the institutional dynamic, price points are tighter, so any penny we can save makes those avenues more appealing,” he added, referring to large-scale institutional food buyers like hospitals, universities, and community food purveyors. Sours has also implemented cover cropping and staggered crops. “Eric (Bendfeldt) helped us think outside the box. We are also saving money on seed cost and he pointed the way to vital financial assistance with equipment.”
Gardner said his group hopes to “put farmers in a position that as there is increased value placed on what they are doing in regard to sustainability and how their food is grown that it will translate to dollars in the long run.”
Many institutions are now or will be requiring certification that will include sustainable practices on the farms they use as suppliers. “We are helping farmers stay ahead of that curve and incorporate that facet of their facilities in marketing their products,” said Gardner. He also sees huge potential for small farms to compete in niches. He said, “The crux is we want to help the small farms stay in business and preserve the land resource.”
Sours said that he and his fellow farmers “talk about improving practices all the time.”
“No farmer who is worth his salt wants to be out here ruining the ground, or having erosion because that’s his livelihood.”
The workshop is open to anyone interested in learning more about the local food system, particularly marketing their product. Touted as “a program developed specifically for producers who would like to get started or expand current operations to sell direct to restaurants and retailers,” the workshop will be held 9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. on two dates in November.
Thursday, November 10th
The Gathering Place,
841 Mt. Clinton Pike, Harrisonburg, VA
Thursday, November 17
MidAtlantic Farm Credit
125 Prosperity Drive, Winchester, VA
Sign up online at http://tinyurl.com/h7w5zhb .
Or contact French Price, Farm to Table Coordinator, Virginia Cooperative Extension at (540) 435-6029 Ext. 117 or email [email protected] Register one week before your selected date! $15 pp.