August 1, 2014

Close to Home: Exploring Three of Virginia’s Working Landscapes

Jes Walton, EcoAgriculture Partners

This blog often focuses on the geographies and management techniques of faraway (from our headquarters in Washington, DC) lands like the Eastern High Atlas of Morocco or Northern Tanzania’s culturally and ecologically unique Maasai Steppe Heartlands. But, this week, EcoAgriculture Partners’ staff ventured out into the field to explore several landscapes closer to our home—to visit and ask questions at three farms in Virginia that are part of an incipient landscape initiative, while gaining practical experience with some of our landscape performance measurement tools.

Along with staff from the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and several local landowners, the EcoAgriculture team took part in information sessions and tours of the Farm at Sunnyside, Over Jordan Farm and Oxbow Farm. These farms are members of Virginia Working Landscapes (VWL), a network that promotes sustainable landscapes for native biodiversity and agricultural production by conducting ecosystem research, monitoring habitats and providing community engagement and outreach. In this context, we evaluated and documented the pillars of integrated landscape management, including viable local livelihoods, biodiversity conservation and agricultural production, all supported and bound together by strong institutional linkages.

Walton - Staff Retreat 2

Farm at Sunnyside

Our first stop was the Farm at Sunnyside, situated alongside Shenandoah National Park with the iconic Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance. Large flocks of chickens, high tunnel hoop houses and a loyal farm dog met us at the entrance. A closer look yielded a wide range of innovative sustainable agriculture and environmental conservation efforts. In this integrated system, intensive and highly diversified certified organic fruit and vegetable production—including unusual produce for the area like ginger, turmeric and galangal—sat alongside fields of native grasses. The property had large wooded areas and all non-agricultural lands on the farm were managed to create habitat for supporting wild biodiversity and ecosystem services. Sometimes these services yielded tangible and marketable outputs, such as the local pawpaw, native wildflowers and honey; other benefits, for example from encouraging small animals that prey upon agricultural pests, were much harder to quantify but anecdotally important to the farm’s management. As owner Nick Lapham and his conservation biologist, Sam Quinn, emphasized—they were in the business of producing both biodiversity and food at Sunnyside.

Over Jordan Farm

On our way to the next site, we drove through alternating heavily wooded areas, open pastures and residences until we arrived at the Over Jordan Farm. Land manager Mike Sands led us through several fields of native and warm season grasses and up to a grassy hill where we looked out over his pastures and “flerds” (flocks + herds) of sheep and cattle grazing in the distance. His alternative grazing techniques and innovative pasture management approaches utilize short rotations of grazing cattle or sheep “mob grazing,” with subsequent long rest periods that encourage plant diversity and build soil health for drought resilience, carbon sequestration and a host of other benefits—not to mention increased livestock production. Sands’ background as a researcher and agricultural development professional have led him to create Over Jordan as a demonstration farm, with the goal of spreading sustainable pasture management practices throughout Northern Virginia.

Oxbow Farm

Finally, at Oxbow Farm we explored a large operation specializing in premium hay to supply the many prizewinning horse farms in the region. Soybean, corn, sunflower and winter wheat are grown in rotation with hay grasses and interspersed with 30 acres of native perennial grasslands and more than 600 acres of woodland. The farm received Virginia’s Clean Water Farm Award in 2008 for their zero tillage, cover crop and rotation practices that continue to keep the bordering Shenandoah River clear of pollutants. Oxbow’s owners, Beatrice and Adie von Gontard, have a strict “no pesticide rule,” considering the importance of insects to pollination and as food for vulnerable local bird populations. In several locations, the air was filled with a din of songbirds that Amy Johnson, a research fellow at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, identified and described. Our morning ended alongside one of Oxbow’s hay fields, where a few other members of Virginia Working Landscapes joined the Smithsonian and EcoAgriculture staff for lunch around picnic tables covered in blue and white checker table cloths.

At the three sites, EcoAgriculture staff had used the Landscape Performance Scorecard to gauge the landscape’s strengths in the livelihoods, conservation, agricultural production and institutional dimensions, while engaging stakeholders in conversation about accomplishments, areas for improvement and ways forward. Conversations that had spanned the morning continued at lunch. The goal of the day’s visits wasn’t to “grade” the existing activities and practices, but to document current landscape characteristics, identify priorities in the group, spark discussion and encourage knowledge sharing.

Many themes arose. Invasive species were lamented at each location, although perspectives differed—the most sought after grass species on one farm was considered a pest on another, with one being better for sheep forage and another serving as habitat for endangered birds. All landowners emphasized the many tradeoffs, ongoing guesswork and experimentation to find out what “works” on their farm, which might be totally different from a farm just a few miles down the road. Despite these different priorities and approaches, all were working towards fostering a larger landscape where biodiversity, sustainable livelihoods and agricultural production could coexist—even thrive. Protecting pollinators, preventing erosion and encouraging biodiversity for resilience and business opportunities were high on everyone’s list.

Walton - Staff RetreatThere was an air of competition and camaraderie between landowners. They joked while sharing stories and ideas—one table marveled at the sighting of gray fox and spotted skunk on one of the properties and discussed ways to enhance habitat on and around their farms. Another group compared hay prices and the nutrition content of reintroduced native grasses and ways to make their landscapes more productive and multifunctional. The successes (and failures) of these many landholders exhibit important advances in the science of land management and development of best practices relevant both to working farmers and conservationists in the area. Interestingly, EcoAgriculture staff also found many parallels with our international work, despite the vastly different geography and demographics. The Virginia Working Landscapes’ goal of connecting important stakeholders in the landscape—mirrored by many of EcoAgriculture’s efforts abroad—was well accomplished that day.

Jes Walton is a member of EcoAgriculture Partners’ communications team. She has a dual masters in International Affairs, Natural Resources and Sustainable Development from American University and the UN Mandated University for Peace and has worked extensively with agrarian communities in West Africa.


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