Tucked away in the hills of the Catawba Valley, just a 45-minute drive from the center of campus, sits the hub of sustainability efforts for Virginia Tech and the surrounding region.
The Virginia Tech Catawba Sustainability Center is a 377-acre property that is home to several historically significant buildings that date back to its time as a dairy farm for the Catawba Sanitarium in the 40s.
The center works to actively engage the community to help create and demonstrate a more sustainable way of life.
“I relate sustainability to environmental conservation and healthy vibrant communities,” said Josh Nease, the manager of the center. “Environmental health equals human health.”
According to Nease, the center is committed to developing, researching, demonstrating and the teaching of sustainable practices across all fields, including green building and construction, low-input agricultural production, energy production and community-based business development.
The center’s main goal is to engage with faculty, staff, students and community members to work toward a more sustainable world, which they are striving toward with a variety of programs.
The center offers an eight-week agri-business course every winter called the “Growers’ Academy.” The course, which is open to the public, combines four weeks of sustainable farming classes with four weeks of business classes to teach participants the two sides of sustainable farming.
To make the experience more “hands-on,” the center has six resident growers that maintain demonstration plots throughout the property. These growers practice sustainable farming and low-input techniques and harvest crops like onions, garlic, beans, tomatoes and corn throughout the year.
The center also offers additional educational programming in the form of the “Homestead Learning Series,” which consists of a Beginning Beekeepers Workshop and a Midsummer Sustainable Gardening Workshop.
With the future in mind, in 2014 the center hopes to add an advanced beekeeping program, additional sustainable gardening classes, composting classes and possibly a permaculture course.
But what exactly does sustainability mean?
“If it is good for the people, if it is good for the planet, and it is good for the economy, then that is sustainable,” Nease said. “They are the three P’s (of sustainability)--people, planet, and profit.”
Most of the center’s current strengths are agriculturally based, like sustainable farming and land-management because of their vast farmland property amidst the Appalachian Trail.
The center continues to expand its efforts with future plans, which include integrating other areas of sustainability like architecture and energy production, Nease said.
In fact, last year the center harvested their native warm season grass for use as biofuel at the Virginia Tech steam plant.
“It’s important to stay relevant to the community and in order to do so, we need to do things, try things, experiment with things that can help people’s farming and agriculture businesses financially but also improve their land at the same time,” he said.
Improving the land, while also maintaining financial success is the tenet of sustainable farming, Nease said.
“We can have a sustainable farm if we can afford to do it year after year,” Nease said. “But it is more than that. It’s also working with the land in such a way that the land is better off at the end of the process than when you started.”
Working toward healthier land and soil can be as simple as using techniques like crop rotation and planting cover crops in between seasons. The former technique helps the soil maintain nutrients, while the latter technique introduces nitrogen into the soil and helps prevent erosion.
By focusing on soil health, the need for expensive pesticides and fertilizers decreases, which not only makes for thriving and healthy plants, but it also saves money, Nease said.
One of the most popular and successful functions of the center is to be involved with the Catawba Valley Farmers’ Market that runs every Thursday from 3:30-7:00 p.m. during the months of May to October.
Through the farmers’ market, the message of sustainability is spread and community engagement is achieved, according to the Catawba Valley Farmers’ Market Manager Kati Span.
“The economics stay local. The people that grow benefit from the people in the town that are purchasing and the cycle keeps going,” Span said. “The product and the consumer stay in the same general area, and I think that’s what being sustainable means.”
Nease and Span agree that farmers’ markets contribute to the mission of sustainability by saving many resources like transportation and personnel while also stimulating the local economy.
“Even more so than the nutritional and overall health aspects, I like getting to know the people involved (in the market) and how it really brings us together over something simple like food,” Span said.
Local vendor Michelle Heiller of the Red Wellie Farm said the sense of community gained over such a sustainable event is what keeps her coming back. Heiller, who sells baked goods like apple scones and pumpkin cookies, uses as much local ingredients as she can.
“I like to know what is going into my body and where it came from,” Heiller said. “But I also love being connected to the community. (Getting involved with the farmers’ market) is a great way to meet people and buy ingredients locally.”
While the center engages with the public and community often, students aren’t always as active at the center because of its distance from campus.
But, Nease said, they are seeing more student involvement this year than ever before. He attributes the higher participation to raised awareness about sustainability but also sees a need to continue raising awareness.
“Sustainability is so important because all of the choices we make today will affect everything in the future, and we tend not to think about the future,” Nease said. “Focusing on sustainability creates and maintains conditions under which people and nature can productively exist now and 25 years from now.”
In a three-pronged approach to accomplishing their mission of sustainability, the center is focused on engaging the public through education and outreach programs, engaging students and faculty through research and experimental learning and working to promote land-based business opportunities and economic sustainability in the
“The potential here is endless,” Nease said.
Nease will be speaking more about the projects and goals of the Catawba Sustainability Center Wednesday at the Blacksburg Farmers’ Market from 2 - 6 p.m.