Increasing demand for locally grown food is creating new markets for small farmers. But boutique growers face challenges that factory farmers don't. And for them, a little help can make a big difference.
Take, for example, a farm in Floyd County that won a cool prize in a competition designed to help niche agriculture-based companies grow.
“It’s meaningful work. It's physical, it’s challenging; every day is different and you’re in a beautiful place like this,” says Kat Johnson. She is the farm manager at Field’s Edge Farm in Floyd, Virginia.
“We’re striving to be more of a reliable source for produce, not just someone that has a few things growing part of the year, but someone that you can go to or that you can rely on for broccoli throughout the year if that’s what you need. So really, (it’s about) defining a brand that is reliable and that has a quality product behind it of course," Johnson says.
Leslie Slusher and her husband Roger own Field’s Edge. Their house is on the hillside, just above the fields, with a beautiful view of Buffalo Mountain. It’s been in his family for generations, raising cattle.
But a couple years ago. Leslie says they got serious about growing organic produce. “I think people are starting to care more about where their food comes from and the way its been produced and we’re starting to realize that some of the things that have been done aren’t sustainable,” Leslie Slusher notes.
Field’s Edge has the sustainable practices part down. This past spring, they built a pack house barn; a roof with three open walls that that looks like a rustic cathedral. Breezes blow through from acres of meadow Johnson planted with bee balm, milk weed, coreopsis, and yarrow to attract beneficial insects. Kat Johnson says “that’s so our plants get pollinators and the aphids get eaten by the hover flies, we hope.”
But what Field’s Edge Farm couldn’t sustain was the life of its fresh picked produce. Each beautiful head of broccoli, perfect pepper, and flat of gorgeous greens, has a brief, best quality window. That meant little time, sometimes just a few hours, to get it to their major client, Harvest Moon, and other markets around Floyd.
Leslie Slusher knew that “if we really wanted to be able to market our produce effectively, we needed cold storage and that was expensive. Just the door alone to the cold storage was $5,000.”
Now, they have not only the door but a sizeable walk in refrigerator behind it, thanks to the Floyd Grown Initiative, a program looking to pave the way for niche agricultural businesses in the county. They held a business competition and awarded specially tailored prizes to the winners’ particular need.
Leslie Slusher says the award was a game changer. “It allowed us to build this cold storage and the cold storage allows us to really extend our harvest and control when we market our produce. It allowed us to take a step up to the next level. we decided that we needed to hire someone who could oversee everything, so we hired Kat. And it was funny, this time last year, it was my husband and I and one seasonal, part time employee and here we are, a year later, with two full time employees and one seasonal."
And that’s allowed them to get even more creative. Kat Johnson says they’re moving into “…more specialty produce, that maybe some people are not growing, like not just a potato but a fingerling potato or a purple fingerling potato;edible flowers that people put on pastries at Chateau Morrisette; Violets, Gem Marigolds, Nasturtiums and a little bit of Calendula.”
And she wants to take a stab at growing artichokes. A native Californian, Johnson is going to give it a go. “They may not work,” she acknowledges, "but if they do, we’ll be the only ones with artichokes to bring to market.”
Lifting her head to gaze at the tables full of produce, the meadow and mountains beyond, Leslie Slusher says “it’s a very special valley. People have told us that there’s ‘something here’ it’s been occupied for a long time, I don’t know, maybe all the spirits still walk here.”
Slusher tells me that when they plow their fields, they keep finding old arrow heads, mortar and pestle and signs that people have long farmed here. She says they brought them to an archaeologist at Virginia Tech who said some of them were perhaps 5,000 years old.
“Roger’s and my end goal with all of this is to preserve this land and turn it over to the next generation in better shape than what we got it. That’s kind of what the generations do that each one tries to improve what the generation before gave them, so this is kind of our way doing that.”
Fields Edge farm is a lot of things, a home, a dream, and now a reality, but it’s also a business.
“We will make our living from this, so it has to be profitable and able to support our family, but it is not industrial farming. It’s the antithesis of it,” Leslie Slusher says.