Blue Valley Farm Manager Brian Moss adjusts a high-tunnel hoophouse during the growing season.
Blue Valley Farm Manager Brian Moss adjusts a high-tunnel hoophouse during the growing season.
Last year SustainFloyd asked the question: “What’s the smallest piece of land a single farmer can make a living on?”

The query resulted in the development of what we call the “Pocket Farm” model, an experimental template for organic vegetable farms which incorporates specially targeted crop-rotation techniques and high-tunnel hoophouses to produce a steady stream of high-value organic crops and meet a proven demand from regional distributors.

The model, developed by Tony Kleese of Earthwise Company, LLC, suggests that by using those techniques, a farmer may be able to make a living on 1.5 acres.

Appalachian farms have shrunk over the years as they’ve been subdivided for relatives and profit. Now, we’re hoping to learn how to farm in the “pockets” of Appalachia while tapping into global markets and building a regional food system.

SustainFloyd is ground-testing the template at Blue Valley, its working model farm near Check, Virginia. We’re also teaching the template as part of two 6-week classes that begin Monday, Sept. 9.

Classes will take place from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Mondays at the Floyd Country Store. While focused around the template, they’ll also offer a wealth of general knowledge, with guest lectures from local farmers, produce distributors and experts. Our spring classes filled to capacity shortly after they were announced, so if you’re interested please contact SustainFloyd to register now.

The Pocket Farm system was designed for “start from scratch” entrepreneurs but also can be adapted by more experienced farmers. It’s flexible enough to work as a standalone business or as a smaller piece of a larger farming operation that incorporates livestock, perennials or other products. It assumes the entrepreneur has only an acre and a half and a pick-up truck with a trailer hitch; all other expenses, from hand tools to interest on a start-up loan, are built into the model.

Instead of the classic organic farm market model, which involves growing many products and selling them through farmers markets and to CSA clients, the Pocket Farm template involves growing fewer products but in large enough quantities to access the wholesale market.

The model was specifically designed to reduce the barriers of entry to farming in the region, where lack of access to land, labor and capital often prevents potential beginning farmers from getting a start, or experienced farmers from becoming more profitable.

In January we offered a free workshop on the template that drew more than 160 people despite snowy weather. About 50 students (the most we could fit into our classroom) completed the subsequent six-week class. Roughly half of them went on to take the second six-week class, which involves tailoring the model to the student’s farm. About 20 students emerged from the two classes with the solid foundation of a customized farm business plan.

SustainFloyd is now engaged in ground-testing the Pocket Farm model at Blue Valley Farm, its working model farm, located at a transitional site on Eanes Road. Blue Valley’s farm manager collects data on all aspects of the farm’s management, production and markets with the goal of refining the model so that future “pocket farm” classes will have locally generated information and lead to more successful farms in Floyd and the region.

The first products from Blue Valley Farm are available through Good Food – Good People in Floyd County, Backyard Produce in Raleigh and elsewhere.

So far, we’ve seen a lot of variance in our results from what the template predicted. That’s due to a number of variables that also affect real-life farming:

1) Weather.
Snow and cold temperatures lingered longer than usual here in the Blue Ridge Mountains, contributing to a late start for farmers around the region. Blue Valley was no exception.

The unusually wet weather has continued into the summer, with both positive and negative effects. The good: We’re seeing high cabbage and cucumber volumes. The bad: The prolonged moisture hurt our lettuce production.

2) A smaller farm size.
The model is designed for an acre and a half, but our transitional site is closer to an acre. With washout in the fields from the heavy rain, only about three-quarters of an acre is farmable. Additionally, we’re starting with only one high-tunnel hoophouse instead of the three recommended in the template.

3) Delays in organic certification.
The Pocket Farm model was built around organic wholesalers, but it has taken months to receive organic certification. In some ways that’s been a good thing, as it’s forced our farm manager to search out and open new markets in North Carolina, but it’s also prevented us from selling to at least one distributor.

In short, our experience on the ground is continuing to inform our business plan and model. Our Farm Committee met with Tony and the farm manager on Friday to evaluate the progress so far and determine next steps. We’re already refining the model and starting to plan for next year.

The working model farm is made possible by funding from the Central Appalachian Network and blue moon fund. Our spring Pocket Farm series was funded largely by the Virginia Beginning Farmer & Rancher Coalition, which also serves as an umbrella for a series of important projects around the Commonwealth.