Diversifying Helps Small Farms Thrive
A small dairy farm in western
Maryland. The U.S. Department
of Agriculture defines "small
farms" as those averaging
$50,000 in gross sales
annuallywhich net, on
average, around $23,159.
|The Appalachian hills offer challenges relished
by its independent-minded residents. And the same rolling, diverse topography
that can make traditional midwestern farming practices impossible here also
supports an extraordinarily broad array of plant species.
It is with the idea of seeing an opportunity in each challenge offered by the
rugged but rich topography that U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists are
helping Appalachian farmers look for niche markets for products such as
grass-fed beef, ramps, and chevon.
"Why send cattle to the Midwest to be fattened on corn, when New York City
restaurants and other East Coast markets are buying grass-finished beef from
Argentina?" wonders William M. Clapham. He has been head of the
Appalachian Farming Systems Research Center in Beaver, West Virginia, for the
past 2 years. USDA's Agricultural Research
Service operates the center, which is about 3,000 feet above sea level.
"One of the many things our hills are tremendous at producing is lush
grass," Clapham says. "So why not keep the cows here, save the
transportation costs for shipping them out to midwestern feedlots, and build up
a niche market here for a meat product that will command a premium price in the
health food market? Cattle that graze grass have leaner meat."
Ramps? Better known as wild leek, this onion relative with a garlicky flavor
may have anticancer properties. It certainly is a cultural icon in the
Appalachian hills, with seasonal festivals built around it. For centuries,
locals have celebrated the wild leek, touting its virtues in everything from
salads to relishes, as well as just eaten plainraw or steamed.
ARS chemist Joyce Foster (left) and animal scientist Ken Turner talk with
producer Debbie Lehman about economical ways to meet the nutritional needs of
goats while maintaining productive pastures.
|This spring, horticulturist Carol M. Schumann
planted some ramp bulbs in woods around the ARS lab. "They seem ideal for
an understory crop because they mature so early in the spring, before the tree
leaves are out," Schumann says, "and they're dormant at the same time
the forest is fully shaded."
The efforts of the lab's scientists to experiment with cultivating leeks in
farm woods are typical of the lab's new emphasis on capitalizing on the
region's remarkable geographic resource to create products for specialty
"The search for niche products and new markets for small farms is key to
the mission of our newly named lab," Clapham says. The facility was
originally established in 1980 as the Appalachian Soil and Water Conservation
Research Laboratory. The research center is in southern West Virginia and
occupies 280 acres.
As suited as leeks are to forest understory, so, too, is agroforestry well
suited to the Appalachian region, where hills are covered with either trees or
pastures. Agroforestry is the growing of forest crops on farmland or farm crops
Preferring woody and weedy species, goats select the young growing points first
as they browse downward from the upper parts of a plant.
|ARS soil scientist Charles M. Feldhake has
planted 1,200 black locust trees in a steep hillside pasture. He planted the
trees in rows about 30 feet apart in a 5-acre watershed where 25 sheep graze.
Another 25 graze in an adjacent, treeless watershed. Feldhake wants to find out
whether the deep-rooting trees can catch excess nutrients from livestock urine
and manure before the waste reaches groundwater. The trees also provide shade
for grass and other pasture plants, as well as for livestock, during hot summer
Feldhake and ARS agronomist David P. Belesky put small pasture plots in
existing woodlands, thinning out some of the trees to increase growth of forage
This spring, Feldhake planted walnut and pawpaw trees in a hayfield on an
organic farm operated by West Virginia's Lightstone Foundation. "One
challenge will be keeping the grass from outcompeting the tree seedlings
without herbicides," says Feldhake.
In an abandoned Appalachian pasture, animal scientist Ken Turner and chemist
Joyce Foster label invasive shrubs for later assessment of the nutritive value
of their plant tissues for browsing livestock.
|Get Your Goat!
As for chevon, it's the industry term for goat meat. "Our hills are ideal
for goats," Clapham says, "but they're usually there only as brush
mowers, since the hills are too steep for tractors or mechanical mowers."
The thinking at the center is: Why not sell the goats for meat after they're
done mowing? Many fields in the Appalachian hills are abandoned parts of farms
that produce no income for farmers, except possibly fees from hunters. They are
overrun with weeds like multiflora rose and honeysuckle. The center's
scientists are experimenting with ways to return these fields to productivity.
One such field is near the Dan Hale Reservoir for the City of Princeton, West
Virginia. It is a former cornfield overrun with shrubs, grass, and other weeds.
Nothing has been done to the field in a decade, except to mow a few alleys
through it for hunters.
Joyce G. Foster, an ARS chemist, and Kenneth E.
Turner, an ARS animal scientist, have teamed up for the abandoned fields
project. Their idea is to use goats to do the initial clearing. At the same
time, they want to be sure the goats eat nutritiously so they can be sold for
meat when their work is done.
Not that chevon production would stop once the land was cleared enough to
become a pasture for cattle and sheep. The goats would continue to graze
alongside the sheep and cattle. For the most part, they wouldn't be competing
for forage, because their grazing tastes and behavior are so dissimilar.
Chemist Joyce Foster extracts chemicals to determine which plants are safe,
palatable, and nutritious for livestock.
Somewhat like deer, goats graze high and from the top down, preferring the
growing tips and buds of tall grasses and woody shrubs. They avoid the white
clover that is a mainstay of sheep and cattle.
Foster analyzes the chemical makeup of native and exotic pasture plants at
various maturities to find those that are safe, nutritious, and palatable to
various kinds of livestock.
"You have to watch plants closely. They're tricky. To defend against the
eating habits of goats and deer, plants often produce noxious chemicals during
their early growth stages to deter the animals," she says.
for the possible role of various soil types, Foster and Turner are also
studying abandoned farmland restoration on different soils in the region. For
example, they are studying unfarmed fields on karst topography, where
underlying limestone strata lend themselves to cave formation. (See
"Scientists Go Underground To Check Water Quality," August 1993,
Agricultural Research, page 4.)
To help farmers fatten goats, sheep, and cattle for market, agronomist David
P. Belesky is exploring ways to extend the grazing seasonearlier in the
spring and later in the fall. He also wants to fill in gaps in forage
production during droughts and hot summer days. For the heat, he is looking at
warm-season grasses like bermudagrass to supplement existing cool-season ones,
such as tall fescue, that stop producing during hot days.
A wild white clover plant collected from a sheep-grazing pasture by geneticist
Paul Voigt may be used to develop new white clover varieties adapted to the
twin stresses of animal grazing and the Appalachian enviroment.
Belesky and colleagues are also building systems that match forage supply and
quality with the nutritional needs of grazing livestock. Their approach builds
on the hardy characteristics of adapted forage species and minimizes the need
for purchased feed supplements for livestock. Rolling in
Plant geneticist Paul W. Voigt is breeding new white clover varieties to help
farmers renovate their pastures with hardier ones that can stand up better to
the pressures of sheep and cattle eating or stepping on the plants' stolons, or
Most commercial varieties are not well-adapted to pasture use.
Voigt wants to combine the high yields of larger leafed white clovers with the
hardy stolons of the small-leafed forms.
He and colleagues from USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)
and the West Virginia and Virginia Extension Services recently finished
collecting sample tips of stolons from more than 2,000 wild white clovers from
the central Appalachian region. After the tips are well-rooted and producing
good growth in a greenhouse at the Beaver center, he will take cuttings and
start other plants. Those will be maintained at Beaver, and the original
collection will be planted at the new USDA-NRCS Plant Materials Center near
Alderson, West Virginia.
The Alderson plants will be evaluated to determine leaf size and stolon
structure. Based on these data, promising plants in the greenhouse at Beaver
will be grouped together. When those plants flower, they will be put into net
cages with honey bees to cross-pollinate them to produce seed. Then, working
with Turner, Voigt will test plants from that seed in pastures with livestock
If he's successful, farmers in the Appalachian region, as well as elsewhere
in the country, will have more durable pastures.
Soil scientist Charles Feldhake
active radiation as part of a study
on how seasonal microclimate
modification by variable-density
conifer stands affects the quality
and yield of forage grown below.
"White clover is widely used and is a very important pasture crop,"
Voigt says. "It provides livestock with high-quality protein while also
providing nitrogen fertilizer for itself and grasses growing with it."
John Vandevender, manager of the Alderson plant materials center in southern
West Virginiaabout 60 miles from Beaver and 1,500 feet lower in
elevationworks with Voigt and his colleagues.
"We test their plants, and they test ours," Vandevender says. His
center, recently relocated from Quick Sand, Kentucky, has released several
cultivars of conservation and forage plants, including a clover and a lespedeza
that Foster is considering as a possible forage. The center's releases include
grasses, legumes, and trees.
Vandevender plans to spend some time promoting an earlier black locust
cultivar release and to explore the possibility of encouraging farmers to use
it and other cultivars to start tree nursery businesses in West Virginia.
"I'd like to see if we could help farmers go beyond the traditional
enterprises of cattle and sheep," he says. "We'd need to discuss this
with economists and others first, to see if it's feasible to develop a
marketassess the need for a product and then produce enough to meet the
Tree nurseries could be one of the supporting industries for agroforestry.
Vandevender has 3 acres set aside for Feldhake's and Schumann's agroforestry
experiments. He is also helping Foster locate various lines of lespedeza and is
discussing the possibility of testing dogwood trees for goat browsing.
In studying animal waste distribution in a karst sinkhole, plant physiologist
Ralph Clark (left) withdraws a soil sample while hydrologist Doug Boyer
operates a global positioning system device.
| Vandevender says his center has three new
releases pending over the next few years, the first being an orchardgrass
WaterQuality and Quantity
Lloyd Burns welcomes any help he can get with feeding his calves, which he
raises on 258 rolling acres for Midwest feedlots. This year's early drought has
him worried about producing enough grass to fatten his cattle up to their
800-pound sale weights. Like most farmers, he's always thinking about water.
"It's essential to my livelihood," he says, thinking not only of
the drought but of the groundwater deep beneath his farm, which supplies his
drinking water. It reassures him to know that ARS hydrologist Douglas G. Boyer
goes 300 feet underground to study water quality below his pastures and barns.
Boyer walks and crawls through caves deep underneath pastures and dairy
farms to sample cave streams and springs for contaminants such as nitrogen,
phosphorus, and fecal bacteria. He will soon add Cryptosporidium
parvum parasites to his list of contaminants to routinely check for.
C. parvum sickened more than 400,000 people in Milwaukee,
Wisconsin, in 1993. The protozoan lays eggs, or oocysts, inside intestines of
domestic and wild animals and humans. Shed in manure or human waste,
disease-causing oocysts can enter lakes and streams by rain or snowmelt runoff
and from inadequate septic systems.
Plant physiologist Ralph Clark (left) and hydrologist Doug Boyer examine a
water sample taken from a spring flowing out of this cave entrance.
Boyer's 9 years of caving and studying water quality have shown that animal
waste is the main source of water pollution in the karst area. This is a
labyrinth of limestone bedrock into which underground streams can easily scour
out caves. Water sampling can't be done by the traditional method of drilling a
narrow pipe well down to the water table because the bedrock is thick, and the
water runs in such narrow, labyrinthine paths that striking it would be very
Boyer says water quality is definitely a small farms issue, because the farmers
in this area don't have any treated water. It all comes from wells.
"There's been a growing public awareness of groundwater pollution over the
past 15 years, especially among farmers," Burns agrees.
His son Lonnie farms with him and has been a caver since the 1990s, inspired by
Boyer. Like his father and neighbors, he supplements his farm income with a
full-time job in town. He says more people would be concerned about water
quality if they had the information Boyer has shared with them. They feel
fortunate to be able to talk to Boyer about the karst formation and groundwater
flow below their farm.
"When you stand in a surface stream and then follow that stream down to
300 feet, walking and crawling for hours, and then see well casings reaching
the stream, you get a whole different perspective," Lonnie Burns says.
"Farming in the Appalachian region is like farming anywhereit's an
uphill business," he says, referring not to the hills that present their
own special challenge, but to the everyday struggles farmers facelike too
much or too little rainresulting in too little income.
"The karst land has its own set of challenges, though," Lonnie says.
"Streams can fall down 300 feet real quickly, along with possible
contaminants from animal manure." He says many people in the karst area
are already trying to take measures to keep the streams and groundwater clean.
Because of Boyer's information, Lonnie and his father and a crew from the West
Virginia Association for Cave Studies spent the third Saturday of each month,
for about 6 months, removing a ton of metal and 29 tons of trash from a
sinkhole on property they acquired across the road from their farm. This is the
second sinkhole they've cleaned.
Sinkholes are ground-level depressions formed as surface water carves its way
through fractures in the limestone. They are critical points in the landscape
because water runoff often drains through them quickly down to cave streams.
Boyer believes that cattle may be congregating around sinkholes and threatening
water quality with their manure. To check this theory, he plans to use global
positioning system receivers placed on several beef steers to continuously
track them by satellite.
The soil that doesn't have limestone bedrock underneath it is actually the
problem soil, because it is usually too high in acids for many plants. It also
often has very low levels of phosphorus, a critical plant nutrient, and high
levels of toxic forms of soil aluminum. The Beaver center has many experts on
marginal soils who are searching for ways to improve them and the plants that
grow on them.
"Good soil is the starting point for all of our small farms
projects," says Clapham. "Recognizing that, we have a soil scientist
on each of our four research teams. The interaction between soil, plants,
animals, and water is at the heart of each of our projects to help small
Comis, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
This research is part of Rangeland, Pastures, and Forages (#205);
Integrated Farming Systems (#207); and Water Quality and Management (#201), ARS
National Programs described on the World Wide Web at
The scientists mentioned in this article are located at the USDA-ARS
Appalachian Farming Systems
Research Center, 1224 Airport Rd., Beaver, WV 25813-9423; phone (304)
256-2858, fax (304) 256-2921.
"Diversifying Helps Small Farms Thrive" was published
in the October 1999 issue of
Agricultural Research magazine.