VT puts old farm to new use as Catawba Sustainability Center

AFP Correspondent

CATABAWA, Va. (June 23, 2015) — A 100-year-old farm with a long history of service to residents of Virginia is offering a new kind of life to a new generation of people who want to become farmers.
The program is offered by Virginia Tech on the 377-acre farm it acquired in 1988 and named the Virginia Tech Catawba Sustainability Center.
One of many programs and activities at the Center, the program called Small Farms Incubator and Grower Plots starts would-be farmers out small. They begin learning to farm on a quarter acre of land.
Josh Nease, farm manager, said six farmers participated in the farm last year raising a variety of crops. These included vegetables, flowers and sorghum.
Doug Lucas, a retired Army veteran who served as a Special Forces medic, is in his third year of learning and growing at the center. He plans to be here again next year and by the end of the season to be in a position to buy his own farm.
Walking around the center on a hot June morning, Nease outlined some of the history of the farm. It was formally part of the Catawba Sanitarium that served as the state’s hospital for tuberculosis patients. During that time, he said, the farm produced meat and dairy products for the patients.
In the 1970s when TB was thought to have become a disease of the past, the sanitarium closed and the facility became known as the Catawba Hospital and remains as a facility in the state’s hospital system. In 1988, Nease reported, the hospital deeded the 377 portion of its property to the university.
“The Virginia Tech Catawba Sustainability Center is an experiential showcase on 377 acres in the Catawba Valley,” the university explains in a website about the center. “With research plus demonstration projects from multiple Virginia Tech colleges, the center is creating a positive model for a sustainable world.”
The Center is situated in the Upper James River Basin in the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay watershed in Roanoke County north of the City of Salem.
Nease said the center has been operating in some fashion for several years.
It was used by the Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) for a while after the property came to Tech ownership. Some research projects were moved closer to VT’s Blacksburg campus as more facilities became available there, he noted.
The Center and Tech campus are connected by either a beautiful winding country road or Interstate 81 South across Catawba Mountain from the Center.
“We are working to build our capacity with infrastructure and programs so we can offer more to farmers and do more for the farmers we have,” he said.
Nease pointed to the old buildings on the facility that have fallen to disrepair during the years when they have not been used. He hopes to see them improved and perhaps repurposed as funding allows.
Two of the main infrastructure projects underway at the center this summer are a new water system and more fencing.
The center gets its water from a well. The system will make water more readily available at the individual plots. The fencing will also help incubator participants by keeping wildlife out.
Due to the large deer population in this part of the state that means high fences. One such fence has been erected around a vegetable plot at the center. It features two strands of electric fence around the top.
The small farm incubator is like a business incubator in many ways, helping folks learn about farming, providing resources such as knowledge and tools and helping with finding financial backings as participants move toward ownership of a farm.
Nease said the Center starts people out on a quarter acre plot so they can find out how much hard work is required before they commit to a larger project.
Lucas was working his plot by himself when Nease introduced him and the duo talked about his plans and the challenges he has faced. He said he was getting a late start planting this year but did not see this as a problem. With the two hoop greenhouses he is erecting he expects to have produce for his customers far beyond the first frost. His vegetables will be producing as other folk’s plants stop producing.
He said the lack of labor is a big challenge. He is looking for two local people who are willing to work from4 p.m. to 8 p.m five days a week for $10 an hour. He said he works at the farm in the evening because he needs to be with his customers during the day.
He has developed a Farm Share Program at the Center where his customers come to the farm once a week to select in season produce he has picked and arranged on tables for their convenience. Each gets a bag a week. He also sells and delivers his produce to about a half dozen restaurants during his growing season.
He said finds that in order to get money from USDA programs for farms a person needs experience. The incubator is providing him that as well as the learning resources the university offers. He praised it for helping him find answers to his questions.
Lucas is not keeping his newly acquired knowledge to himself. As an advocate for the Veteran to Farmer Movement he is helping his military buddies learn about the agriculture industry.
This is probably the kind of outreach the folks who founded the Center hoped for in the beginning of the endeavor. Partners with the Center include local growers and entrepreneurs and the Virginia Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Coalition.