Cover Story

Growing Smarter

Knowledge is cultivated at the Catawba Sustainability Center, where

new and seasoned farmers alike can come together to learn and grow.


By Deborah R. Huso, Contributing Writer


Kay Dunkley and Jason Nease
Kay Dunkley (right), director of the Virginia Tech Roanoke Center, looks forward to working with Jason Nease (left), the newly hired director of the Catawba Sustainability Center. Nease believes that community is key in the center's success. Laura Emery photo.

When Kay Dunkley was a little girl, she remembers sitting around the dinner table listening to her father talk about how he could increase the bottom line for their family’s dairy and beef farm. Dunkley’s father found the answer in cattle feed. “I recall his comments about proper nutrition for cows and how the quality of hay and the nutrients in grains could affect milk production,” she explains. Dunkley says switching feeds (and their chemicals) resulted in a better quality of milk, which bumped up their price per gallon.

That memory stuck with her for life.

Today Dunkley, who is the director of the Virginia Tech Roanoke Center, works with the Catawba Sustainability Center. This project offers a plethora of opportunities for new and experienced farmers to learn how to better their practices. In addition, it also gives students at Virginia Tech an opportunity to take advantage of hands-on learning.

Real-World Problem Solving

The center, located just off interstate 81 in Catawba, is a place for real-world agricultural problem solving. Students, faculty, community members, and farmers are working together to learn and experiment with new methods for increasing farming profit and solving complex sustainability issues.

The farm was originally owned by Catawba Hospital, which opened in 1909 as Virginia’s first tuberculosis sanitarium and continues to operate as a mental health facility. The farm provided meat and dairy products for hospital staff and patients until 1988 when the need for the dairy diminished with the industrialization of the nation’s food supply system. At that point, the hospital transferred 377 acres of its holdings to Virginia Tech, which uses the farm for research and education through its College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Recently the project underwent administrative renovations when the Virginia Tech Roanoke Center took over responsibility for the farm.

Christy Gabbard and Hajior Wehel
Christy Gabbard sows flower seeds with Hajiro Wehel, a Bantu refugee from Somalia who participated in the center's Grower's Academy program, Photo courtesy of Virginia Tech.

Christy Gabbard, whom Dunkley credits for the center’s success, served as the director of the Catawba Sustain­ability Center and oversaw its day-to-day operations up until July. “We basically have a living learning facility,” explains Gabbard, who was originally part of a group of community members called Catawba Landcare, which laid the groundwork for founding the Catawba Sustainability Center. Catawba Landcare formed in 2005 after a visit from Australian Landcare representatives through Virginia Tech. The visitors told the community about the Landcare program, which works to bring residents together, encourages sustainable management of land and resources, and creates business opportunities that support good land management. “Catawba Landcare has been instrumental,” says Gabbard, who indicates the group assists in spreading the word about the Catawba Sustainability Center throughout the community and acts as a voice for locals who want to see new programs or learning opportunities established at the center.

In 2005, the farm was sitting idle and not being used by Virginia Tech, so members of Catawba Landcare jumped at the opportunity to turn the farm into something positive for the community. “We also noticed there was a lack of business development opportunities for the local food business,” explains Gabbard. So working with Virginia Tech, Gabbard and Catawba Landcare decided to create a platform for university education and engagement with the local community.

Three-Pronged Approach

The farm currently provides a haven for the three most important aspects of the organization’s mission: business development, community outreach, and learning and discovery. And without the teamwork among Gabbard, Virginia Tech, Catawba Landcare, and the community of Catawba, the center’s current success and future goals would not be possible.

In addition to being the sole administrator for the Catawba Sustainability Center, Gabbard spearheaded new educational efforts under the VT EarthWorks program, a business-acceleration program for land-based businesses, such as producers of local food, biomass for energy, and sustainable wood products. Since the center’s opening in 2008, Gabbard has worked with individuals and partners to organize a variety of opportunities for the community through this program. The center offers workshops on occasion to educate farmers and landowners about water-quality issues or better practices for meat or produce production. The center hosts a local farmers’ market every Thursday from 3:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. from May through October. VT EarthWorks is also organizing the Roanoke Valley Locavore Directory and the New River Valley Local Food Directory, both of which list sources for local foods. In addition, VT EarthWorks offers land for lease at the Catawba Sustainability Center to growers in need.

Center sign
The Catawba Sustainability Center is nestled in beautiful Catawba Valley not far from Salem and Roanoke.  Laura Emery photo.

Local farmers David and Constance Wright take advantage of the facilities at the center. Even though this is their first season at the farm, the Wrights say the additional half-acre has already made a difference in their business, which consists of about one-eighth of an acre of additional raised beds and gardens at their Cave Springs residence, located about 16 miles from the Catawba Sustainability Center. “We didn’t have enough land,” explains David. “The center has allowed us to grow so much more.” David also indicates the soil found at the center is another benefit. “Working in this soil is so much better than what I’m used to,” explains David, who has to fight with rocks, gravel, and clay at his residence. And while the Wrights had already reached their goal of selling produce year-round, David says having the extra garden space allows them to offer more variety to their customers making their business, which sells onions, sweet potatoes, turnips, potatoes, tomatoes, green corn, beets, and butternut squash, more competitive.

Hands-On Experience

The farm also provides Virginia Tech students the opportunity for hands-on learning. Since 2008, the Catawba Sustain­ability Center has served as a kind of laboratory for faculty and students from the colleges of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Architecture and Urban Studies, Business, Engineering, Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, and Natural Resources and Environment. In the last year, the center has provided experiential learning opportunities for over 100 undergraduates, eight graduate students, one intern, and 53 student volunteers. Though students in other concentrations are not currently using the farm, Dunkley says there is definitely potential. “I think there are ways to include the arts and liberal sciences,” explains Dunkley, who says the beautiful mountain surroundings are ideal for inspiring writers and other artists.

The Catawba Sustainability Center is not only assisting local producers but international farmers as well. Last year, a group of Somali Bantu refugees traveled to Catawba to learn farming practices. The refugees, who knew very little English, learned how to produce crops and returned to Somalia with the knowledge to successfully market and sell their products to consumers. “I think that’s one of the most heart-warming things — what it does for them to take pride in what they’re doing and what they’re learning,” says Dunkley.

Center Welcomes New Director

And even though Gabbard has now stepped down from her position as director of the Catawba Sustainability Center to concentrate more on her business, New River Lamb and Goat, which sells grass-fed meat, Dunkley says the center is excited about welcoming new director Joshua Nease. “When Christy left, she left the organization with so much momentum,” says Nease, who has a degree in public relations with a minor in environmental studies. After reading information about the position, a friend called Nease and encouraged him to apply. “The property has a tremendous amount of potential, says Nease. “Catawba is a small, tight-knit community, and community is important. The more we can get the community working together, the more everyone will benefit. I’m eager to get started.”


For More Info:

Catawba Sustainability Center

5075 Catawba Creek Road

Catawba, VA 24070



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