Can’t Move Mountains: How Geography Shapes Local Farms

Have you ever wondered why there are so many small family farms here? In other parts of the country larger-scale commercial operations line the highways with hundreds, or even thousands, of acres of a single crop, so why not here?

In the Southern Appalachians, many farms are flanked by tall mountains and low lying rivers. The level ground in between is often the only farmable part of a property, which makes growing one large crop impractical here. Producing just cotton or only corn requires hundreds of acres and large equipment to be profitable.These kinds of larger farms can be found in places that have an abundance of flat land, but here in the Southern Appalachians, geography dictates a different plan.

Growing many different crops throughout the year makes sense when a farmer has limited farmable land. A farm may produce lettuce and carrots in the spring and then grow summer crops like okra or tomatoes in the same spot just a few months later. The topography of Southern Appalachia encourages farmers to think small and diversify production.

Farmers have responded by growing crops that match the needs of the community and and adjusting production to suit their land. Physical constraints require creativity and flexibility, two skills that farmers have cultivated here for centuries.

Our local food system supports this approach to farming. The community can buy small amounts of several different kinds of produce: a few bunches of kale and a handful radishes during one trip to the farmers market. Local restaurants support small farms by seeking out specialty produce that can’t be produced on a large scale.

At the same time, we have farms that supply cases and pallets of tomatoes, apples, and more. A combination of large and small farms create a thriving food community in the Southern Appalachians. ASAP studies the evolution of local farms at its Local Food Research Center. Find out more at

Aired 2/29/16

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