Nationally known and respected for its commitment to farmers, Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD) is making strides and looking forward to its 20th year.
By Sylvia Crum, Communications and Development Director, Appalachian Sustainable Development As 2015 approaches, there is a heightened sense of awareness of the importance of this ‘home-grown’ non-profit. Partners and collaborators near and far are stepping up to support the concept of collective impact when it comes to sustainable agriculture and food access. In Appalachia, one non-profit is the clear ‘leader’ in this work and continues to deepen its commitment, effective impacts and expertise to help Appalachians live better….locally.
Since 1995, ASD, a 501(c)3 non-profit, has stayed true to its mission to create, promote and expand economically viable, environmentally sound and socially responsible opportunities to help improve the lives and the health of local communities. Today, serving 14 counties in southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee, ASD operates 10 programs in 3 sectors: sustainable forestry/wood products, agriculture/food system development, and food access.
Access for all members of community is ASD’s mission. People of all ages, skill levels, and economic means can and should have access to the education and infrastructure that allows them to participate in the burgeoning local food movement and through our efforts they do. Providing this access brings hope and motivation to youth and adults alike. In short, we are able to help people in rural communities move as far along the food access continuum as they are willing to go, offering a bright ray of hope in an area that, though it is breathtakingly beautiful, lacks much in the way of livelihood alternatives.
Sustainable Forestry/wood products
ASD’s work in this sector includes, WoodRight, collaboration with two other non-profits to link local wood processors (mills) with green commercial/residential construction projects in central Appalachia. Other work in this sector includes the harvesting, creation of value added products and even planting of fruit/nut bearing trees to increase food access. ASD’s main focus remains on sustainable agriculture and food access.
The Appalachian region that ASD serves suffers from high levels of poverty, lifestyle diseases such as obesity and diabetes, limited employment opportunities, and little access to affordable health and dental care. Alone, ASD cannot address all of these issues, so they partner with a variety of organizations, government agencies, and individuals to collectively impact communities. ASD believes that food security is an important thread in the fabric of vibrant, healthy communities and can play a fundamental role in changing the health and minds of those in need.
In a region blessed with long, temperate growing seasons, plenty of fresh water and mineral-rich soils, many Appalachians still lack the resources, knowledge and support they need to actively participate in the production of food for themselves and for their neighbors. ASD’s programs help individuals gain access to fresh, local, healthy foods and learn the skills to grow for themselves and, in many cases, supplement their family incomes through the growing and marketing of local foods. By teaching those in need how to grow their own food ASD helps provide a sense of empowerment far beyond the education and access provided. It is a social, physical and mental game-changer which can allow members of a community to engage and become self-sufficient, providing hope and a “can-do” attitude which has been lost in many areas.
ASD’s vision for its food access work is that the well-being of people in the community improves because there is greater access to and interest in choosing to consume fresh, healthy and nutritious food. ASD works to meet people where they are and moving them along a continuum of food access strategies that begin with providing access to free fresh, healthy food through food pantries and culminate in teaching those in need how to produce, preserve and even sell fresh food from their gardens. In food access, ASD operates these programs:
Healthy Families ~ Family Farms (HFFF): This program raises money to buy produce “seconds” from limited resource farmers in Appalachia which are then donated to area food banks and pantries. “Seconds” are fresh fruits and vegetables that are good quality and highly nutritious but do not meet the rigorous esthetic standards of the wholesale grocery market. (Seconds can be 20-50% of a farmer’s production, depending on the crop, weather, etc). By paying farmers for their seconds, there is an incentive to bring produce out of the field. On average, HFFF donates 70,000 pounds of produce, 100% free of charge, to food banks/pantries each year. This program respects the needs of limited resource farmers as well as the needs of the community. HFFF also works with food pantries to deepen their client’s understanding of the importance of eating fresh, healthy foods by providing nutrition education and cooking demonstrations.
Grow Your Own: This program was started in 2012 in Washington County, VA. Food pantry participants with green space are taught how to grow their own food at a training garden located at Ecumenical Faith in Action which operates a food pantry in Abingdon, VA. Participants then ‘dig in’ to create their own large home gardens which are tilled by ASD, its partners and the gardeners themselves. With the support of generous funders like Grow Appalachia, ASD provides tools, seeds, plants, technical support, classes and services these folks need to become successful gardeners. Classes cover a wide range of topics including: healthy soil, weed and pest management, harvesting, food preservation, seed saving, marketing excess produce and more. Classes are taught to ensure the sustainability of the program and to encourage healthy eating year round. In 2013 thirty Grow Your Own families grew over 10,000 pounds of food; two of them even began to sell at the farmers market, earning $2898 in income.
Garden Boxes: For those who are unable to grow their own food at the scale required by the Grow Your Own program, ASD offers Garden Boxes to those in need. These boxes are waist high and on casters so that seniors or those with disabilities can grow food for themselves. Relatively small, Garden Boxes provide an impressive amount of food for small families or individuals. This program uses “garden partners”, volunteers who connect one-on-one with gardeners throughout the growing season. They provide support and instruction as well as a much needed social connection to these often isolated individuals. In 2012, there were 21 Garden Boxes in use. Today there are more than 85!
Learning Landscapes: The Learning Landscapes program teaches children where their food comes from with instruction in growing and preparing food, food tastings, healthy outdoor activities and a chance to learn in an experiential setting. This program can be taught either during school at garden sites on campus, in after school and/or summer sessions at sites located in communities. Students of all levels benefit from this type of education, as it reinforces classroom learning in ways that make subjects such as Math and Science come alive. Special needs students in particular shine in this program. The focus on healthy eating and a more active lifestyle is subtle but effective and results in students being interested in eating healthy food because they have participated in creating it. Over the past 10 years, more than 10,000 children have participated in Learning Landscapes.
The continuum below represents one path to a healthier food system and is intended to help individuals and communities visualize moving forward, not stopping at an early point such as free produce at food pantries or in-school food tastings. ASD meets people where they are and helps them move along the continuum as appropriate for their desires, skills and abilities.
Program Expansion into the Virginia Coal Counties
With job loss in the coal counties increasing and food insecurity on the rise, ASD expanded its work into the coal counties last year. For years ASD has donated fresh produce to Feeding America andlocal food pantries in these counties but only recently been able to offer those in need the ability to grow their own food. Initial targets included three counties in southwest VA – Lee, Buchanan and Dickenson – with extremely high poverty rates. (Taken as a whole, the three counties have a 24% poverty rate.)
The programs that are implemented are based on the needs, desires and resources of the communities and include a variety of food access programs that range from school-based gardens to farmers markets. ASD’s goal is to identify partners in each community and engage the entire community to help change their food system, bringing what they can to the project. ASD works to build capacity within the community and are very deliberate and transparent about the need for the community itself to own their food system, not becoming reliant on ASD or its partners in this work.
Sustainable Agriculture as an economic driver
Fundamental to ASD’s mission is identifying economic opportunities that are appropriate for the resources and people in our region and removing the barriers to participating in those opportunities.
Appalachian Harvest: In 2000 ASD created Appalachian Harvest (AH), a food hub which connects Appalachian farmers with larger markets such as grocery store chains and produce brokers. AH was created to offer tobacco farmers a way to stay on family farms by transitioning them to grow organic fruits and vegetables when allotments were diminishing. Because of consumer demand and the market, today AH farmers grow produce that is largely conventionally grown, (approximately 2/3 of AH’s product mix is conventional and approximately 1/3 is certified organic). Gross sales volume in 2013 was $1,495,000.00 compared to $162,395.00 in 2002 which was only organic. (Strictly in the realm of Food Safety, if Appalachian Harvest had not taken its leadership role, sales would have been negatively impacted. The 2013 sales of $1,495,000.00 would have only been $329,625.00 without our partnership with VA Cooperative Extension and our extensive work with meeting Food Safety requirements).
How does Appalachian Harvest work?
- Retail markets are established, crops are planned, technical assistance & food safety training are ongoing
- AH coordinates packaging, labeling supplies with bulk orders to help downsize the unit costs for farmers
- AH receives, inspects, cools, aggregates, and distributes graded produce in compliance with food safety traceability requirements.
- Appalachian Harvest charges 20% of the delivered price for the entire suite of services provided to farmers.
Growth potential assessment next 1-5 years: As new and beginning farmers become more experienced and as experienced farmers become more successful and more comfortable to branch out of their comfort zone, there are hosts of specialty crops that could be provided to local and regional markets. With existing demand, there’s a tremendous amount of room for growth without doing any additional outreach to buyers. By 2018, Appalachian Harvest targets to have successfully completed sales of $3 to $3.5 million in local and regional produce.
Many organizations assist farmers in a variety of ways (Virginia Cooperative Extension and the Virginia Department of Agriculture). However, when it comes to market development, infrastructure, aggregation, and distribution, there isn’t another organization within a 160 mile radius of Appalachian Harvest that possesses our capabilities to assist small, medium and large family farmers.
Rooted in Appalachia:
Because these opportunities are not appropriate for micro scale farmers, we created Rooted in Appalachia (RiA) (www.rootedinappalachia.com) which promotes restaurants and other businesses that purchase local food and beverages. In both enterprises ASD plays the role of marketer, aggregator and distributor, enabling a wide range of farmers and gardeners to generate income and remain in the region. With the donation of a refrigerated box truck last year, deliveries began in July. From July to October, 2013, RiA farmers earned over $12K in income.
Appalachian Farmers Market Association: Additionally, we operate the Appalachian Farmers Market Association, a volunteer association which works to create and promote farmers markets in the region. We also provide training and technical support to market managers through pass-thru grants and education opportunities, workshops and two conferences each year. When we began AFMA, there were 8 markets in our footprint, today there are 32.
To learn more…
To learn more about Appalachian Sustainable Development or to get involved, please call 276-623-1121 or like us on facebook.
Learn about ASD’s upcoming farm tours with the 2014 Farm Tour Brochure.