According to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, agriculture is Virginia’s largest industry by a wide margin. In its 2019-2020 “VAgriculture Facts and Figures” report, the department said agriculture “has an economic impact of $70 billion annually and provides more than 334,000 jobs in the Commonwealth.” In Floyd County, the market value of agricultural products sold in 2017 (the last year for which there is available data) totaled nearly $34 million. But who are the local producers contributing to this economic sector, and how does the agriculture industry impact the food economy in Floyd?
According to Jon Vest, a senior extension agent with the Virginia Cooperative Extension office in Floyd, 62% of gross commodity output in the county comes from livestock. The majority of Floyd County farmers deal in beef and cattle production. “When we discuss marketability,” Vest explained, “Floyd’s kind of unique because it’s not the best-suited to long-distance travel. The (livestock) farmers, while certainly some is local, the majority is commercial cattle operation where they raise calves that are ‘finished’ elsewhere.”
However, Floyd County’s agricultural economy is also diversified. Floyd County is home to several smaller farms that Vest referred to as “organic or alternative.” He said these operations have a “vested interest in providing food locally.”
And although their approaches may be new, these small family farms have a long history in Floyd County. Leslie Slusher, who owns Field’s Edge Farm with her husband Roger, said “The Slusher family has been on the land since 1892.” Today, the farm seeks to embody the “diversified family farm” model that defined its beginnings. Roger’s family, Slusher said, used to fill their Model T with green beans and transport the produce to Roanoke each week. The green beans that didn’t sell? “They would use as a bed at night,” Slusher said.
According to Woody Crenshaw, who established Riverstone Organic Farm in Floyd, a shift toward eating “local” is “one of the primary changes in agriculture in Floyd over the last ten years.” Crenshaw said that a commercial or “commodity” approach to agriculture, where food grown in a rural area like Floyd is trucked hundreds or even thousands of miles to urban cities, has lost some appeal. “Once you’ve driven a tomato 1,500 miles, it’s very tired,” Crenshaw said, referring to the decreased quality of produce that has travelled outside its local market. Crenshaw also mentioned the economic and environmental implications of conventional agriculture, which involves transportation over long distances.
“I think that the whole climate crisis is very much on the minds of consumers. So (they’re asking), ‘How can I integrate my food needs into local production and local distribution?’” Crenshaw explained. There are other environmental concerns as well. Multiple farmers explained the concept of “carbon capture” to both combat effects on the atmosphere and the warming climate.
Farms will utilize cover crops, Kat Johnson of Field’s Edge Farm said, to ensure carbon capture. “We keep something growing at all times…carbon will help our plants grow, so we want it (to stay) in the soil,” Johnson said, noting that empty soil “releases carbon into the atmosphere.” Farms that are certified organic, like Riverstone, avoid the pesticides, fungicides and chemical fertilizers of conventional agriculture.
Crenshaw called Riverstone a “model farm” for this new approach to agriculture, which has a focus on retail and direct customer-to-farm transactions. Crenshaw and others credit the Floyd Farmers Market as an important component of the local food economy, as well as CSA projects that are currently in progress.
Feeding Neighbors First
Tiffany Thompson, who is the principal farmer at Riverstone, echoed Crenshaw’s sentiments, saying she likes to feed her neighbors first. “We think there’s a niche for good, quality produce,” Thompson said. “I’m very motivated by the act of growing good, healthy food for people and making them happier and healthier.”
Thompson, who worked in an academic setting before taking over at Riverstone, said “I’m in farming because I love to be outside, and I find it to be one of the most challenging positions I’ve ever had… You’re constantly changing your plans (and) it’s somewhat of an invigorating enterprise.” She said she values local food because shopping and cooking depending on what’s in season “brings a certain joy to your kitchen,” and “selfishly, I want that response from people. I love to hear comments from customers and build that relationship.”
At Field’s Edge, Johnson’s number-one customer is a local food aggregator called Locomotive, and the Floyd Farmers Market is in second place. According to Slusher, “Ninety-five percent of what we produce gets consumed within 50 miles (of Floyd), and we really depend on the appetite of the Floyd community for locally-grown food.” Slusher said the local food economy in Floyd continues to grow because Floyd residents are, “very aware, educated and things related to the environment are important to them…They are willing to pay a higher cost for higher quality.”
But alternative family farms like Riverstone and Field’s Edge do face challenges, especially related to economics. Slusher pointed out that “When you buy lettuce from us, the money stays in Floyd,” because Field’s Edge employs multiple people on its farm. As Johnson explained, though, “Even if we’re competitive with our pricing, we want to pay our people well and want to be here for years to come,” saying they need to look at strategies on “economics and what’s going to make us outlast.”
Crenshaw is also concerned about the aging population in farming, which has an economic component. “It’s a problem all over America, and the cost of entry for young farmers is so high, that very special arrangements have to be made…in order for young farmers to get possession of good farmland,” Crenshaw explained. Essential education is also a barrier to entry, Crenshaw said. “It’s a high-skill enterprise.” Local farming takes a village, and community partners such as the Economic Development Authority, Virginia Cooperative Extension and Floyd Town Council have been there to help.
The extension service, Johnson said, “essentially brings the science and wisdom from the land grant university (locally, Virginia Tech) into the community around them. Those extension agents are the bridge between us and the information.”
According to Vest, the cooperative extension has myriad resources to offer local growers—from advice on growing procedures to lab testing and diagnostics. “We want the folks we serve to be productive and profitable enough to be sustained,” Vest said. “I want them to have every bit of knowledge that I have to give.”
Lately, Vest’s job has manifested in crop testing for the upcoming Halloween season. “We look for commodities that will do well—we’ve been looking at several varieties of pumpkin to see what’s going to be desirable.” It’s a familiar process for Vest, even if the crop changes. “I’ve stood in extension trials of 50 varieties of broccoli,” he said, explaining that extension agents will select for the crop varietal that “looks good, tastes good, and is less prone to disease.”
The EDA can provide loans and grants to local producers to help their business grow—as it did with Field’s Edge. Grants from the EDA, Slusher said, helped the farm build a pack shed and establish its website and web store. The Town Council has been a consistent supporter of the Famers Market.
A diversified farm economy, including alternative farms that primarily sell locally, is an asset to a community, Vest explained. “Competition is a healthy thing. If there is a failure (such as a weather event, death in the family, or crop disease), now there’s a hole in my food system. We want our food system to be diversified.”
But competition doesn’t mean opposition, Crenshaw said, between the alternative farms and the more traditional ones. “Ultimately, we’re all trying to make a living,” Crenshaw said. “(Farming) is a primary economic sector for the county, and we’re all in it together.”