Farmer goes wild fostering native plants alongside organic produce
The goal is to show how biodiversity creates value, both ecologically and financially.
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In many ways, the more than 400 acres that Nick Lapham manages and farms south of Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park is the wildest it has been since the 1750s.
Native meadows flourish on scattered plots, abuzz with pollinators and busy with coveys of quail scurrying underfoot. Deer and bear wander over from the thickly wooded areas of the national park, helping themselves to apples and pears lingering in the orchard. (Bears don’t seem to mind the deer fences.) Salamanders and pickerelweed are as much a part of the operation as kale and winter squash.
But that’s just the way Lapham, an environmentalist-turned-farmer, wants it.
“It’s amazing to be an hour and 25 minutes from Washington, DC, and to tell people that you have timber rattlesnakes and black bears in your backyard,” Lapham said.
When a family member who had lived on the property a decade ago stopped by for a visit, she couldn’t believe the level of wilderness that had grown up between the farm and the national park that’s now a neighbor.
A lush forest covers the hillside that used to be part of the oldest orchard in Rappahannock County. Lapham said the same family that got the farm through a land grant in the mid-1700s owned it until the mid-1990s, clearing and farming much of what has now returned to forest.
“To me, what makes this exciting is to be at that intersection and really look at merging conservation and agriculture,” Lapham said. “Is that doable?”
After his career in international environmental policy in the Clinton administration and for the U.N. Foundation, the 44-year-old Lapham moved his family from “big Washington” to Little Washington, VA. He bought the farm, located near the iconic food destination, Inn at Little Washington, in 2006.
He admitted to not knowing much about farming at the time, and his breadth of conservation knowledge was limited in many ways to the big picture.
“I wanted to see if I could find a way to operate a business consistent with the values and principles that I had been espousing,” he said from his kitchen table in the historic farmhouse where he now lives most of the time.
He set out to manage a farm in the context of a greater ecosystem. In a grand experiment he views as a (partially self-funded) continuation of his environmental career, Lapham wants to see if the two can flourish together as part of a financially and ecologically viable venture.
To that end, his may be the only small-scale farm in the country with a conservation biologist on staff.
Sam Quinn was the only biologist employed by a farm at the International Congress for Conservation Biology in Baltimore, where he talked about his unique job to 7,000 attendees this past year.
Quinn, 28, is employed halftime by The Farm at Sunnyside, and halftime by Lapham, himself, who hopes to someday support the position entirely on the farm’s ledger.
As a biologist on a farm, Quinn consults with the farm’s manager, Sean McDermott, on things like pest control and management. He considers how measures that might be good for the produce will impact beneficial species and water quality, and he looks for non-traditional products for selling at markets.
Lapham said that managing a farm for both food and biodiversity creates “a healthy tension between our farmer and our biologist.”
Outside of the farm business, Quinn chips away at a long-term vision for biodiversity on the property. He assesses soil quality in various fields, which helps direct decisions about what to plant where. He measures water quality in ponds and works to restore plants that historically existed on the land.
Lapham said it’s difficult to quantify the value and income that some of these improved practices bring to the farm.
“I’d like to be able to make a case within a few years that these services are adding to the bottom line sufficiently to at least cover the costs,” Lapham said. “Proving that is likely to be one of the more challenging aspects of what we’re about.”
Quinn and Lapham work closely when it comes to one of the most vexing problems for an organic vegetable farm in the middle of the woods: invasive species. The farm was home last year to one of the most robust populations of invasive brown marmorated stinkbugs in the state, according to entomologists from Virginia Tech University.
For a bug that snacks on about 350 different species of plants, the Farm at Sunnyside was like an all-you-can-eat buffet of biodiversity.
Quinn and the rest of the farm’s staff lives on the property in several small dwellings that were already there. (Lapham has placed the property under easement with the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, which limits its ability to be developed further.)
Along with a full-time farm manager, the farm employs 10 other workers at peak season to grow 45 varieties of organic vegetables and fruit.
Just 18 of the total 420 acres are devoted to these main crops, which are sold through a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program on the farm and at DC-area farmers markets.
But the rest play a vital supporting role.
While many farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed incorporate practices known to improve soil and water quality, these changes are often bolstered by grants or government funding.
Lapham’s farm has a few acres that were enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program by the previous owner, but he plans to let the contract expire while maintaining those lands in conservation.
He wants to see if the conservation measures he knows are good for the farm’s environment can be good for its bottom line as well — without federal assistance.
“It’s another way of thinking about how biodiversity creates value,” he said. “And if biodiversity is going to survive, it has to create value.”
That’s why, alongside its vegetables, the farm also sells bouquets of black-eyed Susans, butterfly weed and other wildflowers grown in its meadows. Its wildflower honey bears a QR code that takes consumers to the farm’s website, where they can read about the environment that flavored it.
Native paw paws and spicebush berries that grow on the farm have made their way to the market as well. The farm staff suggests to customers that they cut the paw paw in half and spoon it into their mouths like pudding, enjoying an antioxidant-packed fruit that’s been growing locally for generations. The spicebush berries can be ground into a spice or used to flavor mulled cider.
Lapham is looking at growing more of these wild species on the farm, taking advantage of their natural drought resistance and acclimation while educating new audiences on what to do with them.
It turns out that many of these native fruits, like chokeberry, are rich in antioxidants and easier to grow without the use of pesticides or additives.
Lapham also has commissioned an artist who lives on the property to capture the farm’s landscape and creatures in a way that might help tell its story.
The farm began selling cards featuring the art at farmers markets this year. A red-spotted newt stars on one and a cluster of purple-bloomed pickerelweed on another. The flourishing of both species at the farm is an indication of restored aquatic habitats.
A note explaining this is written — in ink harvested from black walnuts on the farm — on the back of each card.
“Intellectually, I love the idea of being able to tell the story and also have art be integral to what we’re doing. It’s another way of educating people about why this stuff is so cool,” Lapham said.
Lapham has many more thoughts on how the farm’s multifariousness could one day bolster its bottom line. He’s always considering how to balance what is best for the farm and its specific environment with what can support it economically.
That’s why he took the fields that would be harvested for hay, which requires fuel and labor to mow, and converted them to naturalized meadows. That’s why they probably won’t continue to struggle with bears and deer and invasive pests to maintain an orchard. The farm will focus instead on vegetables and native plants and not try to “do it all.”
To ask, “What does the land foster?” and plant accordingly is essentially a new approach to farming. Lapham hopes to find — or help establish — a market that supports that kind of thinking, a customer base that truly understands what he’s trying to accomplish.
“The ultimate would be to one day have a market for biodiversity,” he said. “If we create the mosaic of wildlife I want here, it would be for the broader public good.”
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