Livestock haven’t grazed at the Catawba Sustainability Center in more than 20 years. Now, though, a herd of Angus cattle is pastured on the 377-acre center as part of a program to help beginning farmers.

The center’s small-farm incubator program gives beginning farmers a “place to get their feet wet,” Manager Adam Taylor said. “Access to land is by far the No. 1 thing that deters young farmers or beginning farmers. You don’t have to go buy something before you know if agriculture is right for you. You can do it with training wheels on because it’s a Virginia Tech farm, so there is always someone here from whom you can ask advice.”

The center, which is currently closed to the general public because of the COVID-19 pandemic, sits about 25 miles east of Blacksburg in a valley near the Appalachian Trail. It partners with Roanoke County and Virginia Cooperative Extension to offer sustainable-farming workshops and demonstrations. It also serves as a living laboratory for Virginia Tech research.

James Hancock, a Roanoke County farmer who wanted to expand his herd, pays for pasture at the center to keep about 15 cows. With Virginia Tech’s guidance, he is learning how to cut his winter feed expenses by extending the time the herd can graze.

The center, part of Outreach and International Affairs, provides all the fencing, pasture-management plans, and watering systems for the cattle. The hay the cattle eat in winter is harvested from the pastures. “Instead of bringing hay in, we want to feed them off of this farm, because that’s recycling the nutrients,” Taylor said.

A herd of black cows stands with mountains in the background
The herd of black Angus cattle at the Catawba Sustainability Center includes several calves born last fall.

In addition to the cattle, the incubator program’s projects include peppers grown for hot sauces, mushrooms grown on logs, and beehives from which the main product isn’t necessarily honey.

Participants get physical space at the center, as well as crucial support to help their projects succeed.

Access to advice from university experts lessens participants’ risk of failure. “When you’re out here, you’re among Virginia Tech research and people who are very knowledgeable, so it’s a great resource for someone starting out. But you’ve still got to put the work in,” Taylor said.

Participants also save money on equipment. Each is given access to hand tools and irrigation equipment to help maintain crops. Taylor helps prepare the land for planting and gives advice in dealing with problems, such as diseases and pests.

“We just ask that they show up, plant, maintain, and harvest, and we’ll take care of most everything else,” Taylor said.

Participants even can get assistance with other business needs such as forming a business plan, filing taxes as a farmer, and finding a market for their produce. 

Adam Taylor points while standing next to several logs used to grow mushrooms.
Manager Adam Taylor shows where mushrooms are grown on logs in a wooded area of the Catawba Sustainability Center's property.

Each spring, Ryan and Chrissi Scherer transfer hundreds of chile pepper plants grown from seed in their Roanoke home to a quarter-acre plot in a field near Catawba Creek. They harvest the peppers to make flavored sauces, such as garlic Sriracha, fire-roasted poblano, and ginger habanero, which they sell through their Zen Pepper Co.

Two other projects don’t require plots in the center’s fields. Along the side of a building, beehives are stacked several boxes deep. Mark Chorba keeps the hives not for the honey, but for the bees themselves. Each year he splits and sells new hives to other beekeepers.

Elsewhere, mushrooms grow in the shade of a wooded area, sprouting from cut logs.

“Everyone is doing something different that benefits this one piece of land,” Taylor said. 

Written by Diane Deffenbaugh