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Style · October 23, 2012

Small plots produce nice profits for niche farmers

Photo/Franklin Garcia
Mysore Prasanna (left) and Nana Osie-Bonsu (right) chat with VSU agent Jim Hankins during a summer tour of Rick Crofford's farm.
I used to be a runner, a cyclist and a soccer player. Now I focus all my energy on being a farmer. This is it. This is what I do.
— Francis Ngoh
To learn more
About: Sustainable or niche farming
Who: Jim Hankins, agricultural management agent for VSU's small farms program.
Where: Cooperative Extension Service office in Warrenton
Phone: 804-892-4492
E-mail: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
By .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
When Rick Crofford moved to Fauquier County 12 years ago, he bought seven acres of a dairy farmer's cornfield and built a home for his growing family.

Soon the environmental manager for the Virginia Department of Transportation began doing a little farming on the side.

Now, he ranks among an increasing number of successful niche farmers in Fauquier, who turn profits from a variety of specialty crops on relatively small pieces of land.

As his first commercial crop, Mr. Crofford planted blueberries. His small farm also produces four varieties of fingerling potatoes, a few Yukon gold potatoes, purple asparagus, three kinds of raspberries, strawberries, garlic, hot peppers, broccoli and more.

"You have to grow something no one else is growing (commercially)," he says.

This year, Mr. Crofford planted 100 pounds of fingerling seed potatoes on a quarter-acre in early April. From June into August, he harvested about 1,000 pounds of fingerlings that he sold in bulk at $2 a pound.

"The fingerlings were the easiest and most profitable crop," he says. "The blueberries were the most labor-intensive, because of the time it takes to pick them."

Each of his 200 blueberry bushes yielded 10 to 15 pints of fruit. He also had a bountiful harvest from 750 strawberry plants, once he erected an electric fence to deter deer.

Mr. Crawford enlists help from his four children (two sons, two daughters) and occasionally hires "a couple of local high school kids" to help with the harvest.

"I work pretty hard from March into August," says Mr. Crofford, estimating he devoted 25 to 30 hours a week to his farm during that time.

"Everything I make from the crops goes into a college savings plan for the kids," he says, noting his older daughter hopes to enroll next fall at his alma mater, Virginia Tech.

Mr. Crofford looks forward to a winter harvest from about 75 raspberry bushes he grows in a "hoop house," an unheated greenhouse with a skin of two layers of tough plastic.

"It's kinda neat to come out here in January and December and eat fresh raspberries," he says, popping a red beauty into his mouth. On a recent evening, he picked almost 10 pints of the fruit.

Mushrooms and much more
Francis Ngoh has made a new career of catering to the increasingly sophisticated tastes of grocery shoppers.

He specializes in shiitake mushrooms, but Mr. Ngoh constantly experiments with additional crops on his 39 acres along Rock Run Road, about one-half mile southwest of Monroe Park at Goldvein.

Oak and hickory logs, some in fireplace lengths and others in sections 6 to 8 feet long, cover the ground on about two wooded acres. Some logs are stacked neatly against trees. Others appear to the untrained eye to be strewn about chaotically.

The logs host the mushrooms. Mr. Ngoh drills holes into the logs' bark and outer ring of pulp. Shiitake spawn get implanted into the holes and, if all goes well, the delicacy mushrooms emerge in six to nine months.

Mr. Ngoh seems to know each log personally, as he carefully walks among them, checking the growth of young shiitakes while filling a five-gallon plastic bucket with mature ones. Logs that fail to produce, but should, get a firm whack with a piece of wood.

"It's call shock treatment. It wakes up the spawn," he says.

Mr. Ngoh, a native of Cameroon, West Africa, came to the United States to earn a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Maryland. After college, he began working for AT&T, got married and settled in Silver Spring. A transfer to an AT&T facility in North Carolina changed his lifestyle.

"My wife was still in Silver Spring. I would spend a week or two in North Carolina and come home on weekends. During those trips back and forth, I would explore," he says. "I was attracted to Fauquier County as a bed of agriculture."

In 1989, Mr. Ngoh and family moved into their present home. For the next 10 years, he commuted to the Vienna-Oakton area until retiring from AT&T. "I tried consulting for about a year, but I didn't like it. That's when I decided to be a farmer."

His interest in shiitakes started as a hobby.

"I have so many hardwoods. I began researching to see how I could use them," he says.

Mr. Ngoh knew what he wanted to try when he learned that "shii" is the Japanese work for the mushroom's host tree. Now he harvests 3,000 to 4,000 pounds of shiitakes a year.

"They're my big money maker," he says.

Like Mr. Crofford, he planted one-quarter an acre in four varieties of fingerling potatoes this year. Other crops include asparagus, leeks, garlic, two varieties of scorpion peppers (the world's hottest) and a few greens. Within six months, he hopes to produce oyster mushrooms. He also plans to begin drying mushrooms for market. Although he has not yet had his farm certified as organic, Mr. Ngoh says he uses no chemicals and plants only seeds that are certified.

His farm also has livestock — some laying hens and a few head of sheep. Lambs usually get sold to Muslims during holy days and a slaughtered on-site according to Islamic tradition, or halal.

"I used to be a runner, a cyclist and a soccer player," says Mr. Ngoh. "Now I focus all my energy on being a farmer. This is it. This is what I do."

Marketing the goods
Fruits and vegetables from Mr. Crofford's small, diversified farm on Tackett Lane, about 4.5 miles southwest of Opal, often end up on plates in some of nation’s capital’s finest restaurants. He sells his harvest to The Fresh Link in Locust Dale, a produce wholesaler that provides a vital connection between chefs and specialty farmers.

"We get together with the chefs in January to find out what produce they will be wanting during the next growing season," says Mollie Visosky, a co-founder of The Fresh Link in Madison County. "Then we try to match our growers with crops that they can grow best and make a nice profit."

Produce that has come into demand this year includes Hawaiian ginger, which must be grown in a hoop house, and sunchoke, also known as Jerusalem artichoke.

The Fresh Link buys fresh produce from growers in several Piedmont counties and supplies the goods to 75 restaurants, including The Inn at Little Washington. Mr. Crofford is her only Fauquier County supplier, says Ms. Visosky. No restaurant in the county buys from her.

Mr. Ngoh sells directly to Whole Foods stores in Northern Virginia, to the Airlie Conference Center near Warrenton and to a community supported agriculture operation in Fredericksburg, whose subscribers get local, seasonal food directly from farmers. Mr. Ngoh says Whole Foods generally pays $12 to $15 a pound for his shiitakes, but he sometimes sells surplus mushrooms for as little as $5 a pound to the CSA.

Getting professional support
Helping small farmers get started and prosper is Jim Hankins' mission.

An agricultural management agent from Virginia State University in Petersburg, Mr. Hankins works with niche farmers in six Piedmont counties, including Fauquier. He works from an office provided by the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service on Pelham Street in Warrenton. (The "cooperative" service includes agents from agricultural programs at VSU and Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.)

"I try to identify small producers in our area and give them technical support to be more successful," says Mr. Hankins, assigned here about a year ago. (The Virginia small farms program launched 30 years ago by VSU traditionally has focused on the Tidewater region and only recently expanded into the Piedmont. Mr. Hankins calls it "the best state program no one's heard of.")

Both Mr. Crofford and Mr. Ngoh have benefitted from working with Mr. Hankins. A grant from the Natural Resource Conservation Service, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, paid for Mr. Crofford's hoop house and raspberry bushes. He also got 500 free strawberry plants through VSU and bought 250 more for this year's planting. Mr. Ngoh received 350 pounds of certified organic, seed fingerling potatoes to start his plot.

"Hands down, the red thumb fingerlings were the most successful," Mr. Hankins says.

Mr. Hankins, who managed an organic farm in western Massachusetts before joining the VSU program, works with small farmers to grow "premium products with better demand and better return."

Profits from a crop of fingerling potatoes will be three to four times higher than from a crop of Irish potatoes on the same amount of land.

"One reason is that fingerlings are hard to harvest mechanically because they're small and vary in shape," Mr. Hankins says. " Fingerling potatoes store very well, too. The best way to store them is to leave them in the ground. They can be harvested into November."

Mr. Crofford and Mr. Ngoh have been so successful that Mr. Hankins uses them to promote niche farming. During the growing season, he organized tours of the two operations for other small farmers and potential growers.

"One of our goals is to increase farm income for small producers," says Mr. Hankins, who notes that the size of Fauquier County farms continues to decrease as the number rises. "Not only do we need to sustain the farm, but we also need to sustain the farmer."
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