Land-based entrepreneurs learn to grow their businesses

Flowers, anyone? How about some steaks from locally raised, grass-fed beef? Or bunches of organically grown herbs?

All of these products may be in more plentiful supply in southwest Virginia thanks to VT EarthWorks, a new business-acceleration program for agriculture businesses. Who benefits from the VT EarthWorks intensive-learning series called the Growers Academy? Those with a dream of providing flowers, organic herbs and vegetables, and other agricultural products to the region. The course helps people break into small-scale farming.

As many of them know, it’s one thing to yearn to sell your backyard or family farm’s largesse to local stores and restaurants. It’s another to master the tools of business plans, loans, and market connections.


Christy Gabbard Christy Gabbard, director of VT Earthworks, says participants in the Growers Academy benefit from coaching and advice from the university's professors and graduate students.

VT EarthWorks planted the seeds of its Growers Academy early in 2010 with eight weeks of classes that took place in classrooms and in fields.

“The Growers Academy consists of much more than just traditional coursework,” VT EarthWorks Director Christy Gabbard said. “Participants are able to network, work on business plans, and learn from successful growing operations. They also receive one-on-one coaching from Virginia Tech professors and graduate students in business and agriculture.”


Students give business-plan assistance to Growers Academy participants Jessi McKinney of Doswell, Va., and David Hughes of Louisa, Va., both Virginia Tech seniors majoring in agricultural and applied economics, give business-plan assistance to Growers Academy participants.

Students from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences coached participants in how to write business plans. Successful producers talked about the realities of farm life, including being at the mercy of weather. Chefs defined the most marketable meats and vegetables.

Along with more traditional instructors, students were able to learn from role models such as Patrick County, Va., sheep farmer Craig Rogers, who sells as many heritage lambs as he can raise. He encouraged participants -- some of whom still hold nine-to-five day jobs -- to think about their goals.

“Every enterprise needs to do some pretty pragmatic analysis of what makes sense for them,” Rogers said. “There are so many different objectives. For those who are trying to make a living, your analysis is going to be much different. Chances are, the path that you take will be vastly different from those who are just trying to add a little bit of extra income.”

The academy, developed in partnership with Virginia Cooperative Extension, graduated its first crop of growers and farmers in spring 2010.

“When the course is over, VT EarthWorks’ incubation program makes sure that the participants aren’t left to fend for themselves,” Gabbard said. “Academy graduates are eligible to lease land at a discounted rate at the Virginia Tech-owned Catawba Sustainability Center in Catawba, Va.”

Participants are plowing successfully ahead. Gabbard cites Kathy O’Hara, owner of Greens to Go, who is supplying restaurants with mixed salad greens. O’Hara, a Growers Academy participant, is now leasing land from the Catawba Sustainability Center.

“In September, she set up a hoop house -- a plastic structure that extends the growing season by creating a microclimate for vegetables,” Gabbard said. “Now she’ll be able to supply greens to restaurants throughout the winter.”


Kathy O’Hara’s hoop house is built on land she leases from Virginia Tech’s Catawba Sustainability Center Kathy O’Hara’s hoop house is built on land she leases from Virginia Tech’s Catawba Sustainability Center

O’Hara said, “I couldn't have started my greens business without the help of EarthWorks and the Catawba Sustainability Center. They let me lease some land for my hoop house, and now I'm up and running.”

VT EarthWorks has worked to strengthen the link between producers and consumers in two other innovative ways. In summer 2010, staff members organized and opened the Catawba Valley Farmers Market. And on Nov. 1, 2010, they hosted Field to Fork, a gathering where producers, restaurants, stores, and institutions networked to formalize business partnerships and increase the sale of locally grown food.

Betty Bailey of Catawba Meadow Farm, a VT EarthWorks member and Field to Fork participant, said, “VT Earthworks is innovative in the way it helps local land owners increase income from resources they already have -- land, labor, and equipment -- while protecting the beautiful land and waters of the Catawba Valley. This is very timely given the economic recession and the pressure on local land owners to sell or use land for development.

A unit of Outreach and International Affairs, VT EarthWorks is a project of the Virginia Tech Roanoke Center. The Growers Academy will be offered again in 2011, starting on Jan. 11. For more information, contact Gabbard at (540) 767-6114.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Andrea Brunais at (540) 231-4691.

Videos: About the program

Learn more about VT EarthWorks' Growers Academy and its impact through two videos:

The Catawba Sustainability Center

The Virginia Tech Catawba Sustainability Center is an experiential showcase on 377 acres in the Catawba Valley, Va. With research plus demonstration projects from multiple Virginia Tech colleges, the center is creating a model for a sustainable world.

A local market

    A buyer reaches for tomatoes at the Catawba Valley Farmers Market.

The Catawba Valley Farmers Market is from 3:30 to 7 p.m. Thursdays at the Catawba Valley General Store at 4905 Catawba Valley Drive, off Route 311. Find details online

Learn more

VT EarthWorks helped put together the first local food directory for the greater Roanoke Valley, Va. You can also find Roanoke Valley Locavore on Facebook.

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