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Small dairy farm in western Maryland

USDA Aims to Find Market Niches for Appalachian Small Farms

By Don Comis
October 5, 1999

WASHINGTON, Oct. 5--U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists are helping small Appalachian farms find new markets and niche products, Agricultural Research Service Administrator Floyd Horn announced today.

"The scientists are looking at products like grass-fed beef and chevon, which is goat meat," Horn said. "Cattle that graze grass have leaner meat than those shipped out to be fattened on corn in midwestern feedlots. It will command a premium price in the health food market. Farmers could save shipping costs and build a niche market on the East Coast for pasture-fed beef that doesn't compete with conventional beef."

"The Great Savannah" of the Appalachian Region can raise grass-fed lean beef to compete with that from the Argentine Pampas, which currently supplies the East Coast, Horn noted. The Appalachian beef could be sold to restaurants or packaged fresh for supermarkets, he added.

To explore these and many other options, USDA's Appalachian Farming Systems Research Center near Beaver, W.Va., is organizing "market niche" research partnerships with farmers, experiment stations and agencies in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.

The research center is part of the Agricultural Research Service, USDA's chief scientific agency.

Scientists and producer discuss goat nutrition

As one objective of these partnerships, goats will be evaluated to see how well they can clear abandoned fields of unwanted weeds and shrubs. "We also want to see if we can raise these goats for chevon, alongside cattle and sheep," said William M. Clapham, research leader at the ARS center.

The goats, cattle and sheep might eventually graze in the shade of trees that could later be sold for lumber, Clapham said. The scientists are exploring a variety of options, with a focus on agroforestry. Agroforestry means growing trees as perennial crops on farms or growing crops in existing woods.

ARS soil scientist Charles Feldhake

For example, ARS soil scientist Charles M. Feldhake planted 1,200 black locust trees in a steep hillside pasture where sheep graze. The trees will provide shade for livestock and grass. In addition, their deep roots might extract excess nutrients from livestock urine and manure before the nutrients can reach groundwater. The locust can be sold for firewood or fenceposts, and its flowers provide nectar for honey.

Feldhake and ARS horticulturist Carol M. Schumann are also testing honey locust trees. Other crops with potential include:

  • Ramps (wild leeks), an Appalachian delicacy, grown in woods;
  • Red oaks for their high-value veneer;
  • Chinese chestnut, pawpaw, hazelnut, blueberries and blackberries; and
  • Black walnut and pawpaw trees, grown in a hayfield on an organic farm

Horn said that with a team effort, the Appalachian name will one day bestow the same cachet on its products as do the lush grassy regions of the Argentine Pampas and New Zealand.

An in-depth article on the Appalachian center's research appears in the October issue of ARS' Agricultural Research magazine and on the web at:


Scientific contact: William M. Clapham, ARS Appalachian Farming Systems Research Center, Beaver, W.Va., phone (304) 256-2858, fax (304) 256-2921,

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