Creating Non-timber Forest Product Industries in the Blue Ridge Plateau


This post was contributed by Katie Trozzo.

KatiesBlogPost2My sophomore year of college I fell in love…with trees. J. Russell Smith (1920) who wrote the seminal work, Tree Crops a Permanent Agriculture, along with various permaculture and agoroforestry teachings, introduced me to the exciting possibilities of integrating trees into our production systems so that we can regenerate our land while providing for much of our needs. This discovery led me to study the social factors of agroforestry for my Masters and now, for my PhD, the rich social ecosystem surrounding the development of non-timber forest product (NTFP) industries in and around Virginia’s Grayson and Carroll counties. NTFPs are are biological goods other than wood that come from forests and trees outside forests, such as those planted in fields (FAO, 2014). NTFP production, processing, and marketing is often more complex than common fruit, nut, and vegetable crops, and often requires farmer innovation for success.

Action research (AR) provides a framework for community participation in determining, taking, and reflecting upon action to develop NTFP industries that can diversify rural livelihoods and restore degraded and marginal lands. Through my PhD work, I facilitate this AR process and get to live in Grayson County where I quickly became woven into the fabric of the community. Reflecting on the partnership stages outlined by Cargo and Mercer (2008), I have engaged with the community and begun to develop an understanding of the social landscape. Over the last year, our NTFP network has grown to over 100 members including farmers, residents, local agencies, and non-profits. We have mobilized by piloting different projects such as harvesting, processing, and marketing autumn olive berries and hybrid hazelnuts, but have yet to truly formalize our network.

KatiesBlogPost 1Formalizing our structure and function has been a challenge thus far in large part because of timing and season. We were not in a place to move into formalization until summer, which is often busy and bustling and is not a time when people are inclined for in depth dialogue. During the Spring and Summer, we have spent some time looking outward at all the potential and beginning to mobilize projects, but our focus increasingly needs to go inward so that we can democratically and efficiently respond to emerging opportunities for community collaboration around different NTFP industries such as elderberries, botanical distillation, and shrubs (apple cider vinegar fruit drinks). This winter will be a time to focus in on building a community advisory board and starting to formalize how we work together.

AR is an inherently messy and complex process that can often be overwhelming and challenging to navigate. However, if we move with the process, it is exhilarating to see the community coming together around a shared interest to create real change based on the best information at the moment. I can think of no better way to develop locally appropriate NTFP industries that serve the community than to facilitate a process where the community determines and decides for themselves. I never imagined back when I first fell in love with trees that I would experience my dreams and visions becoming reality by connecting with a community with so much energy and potential to develop industries that promote trees in our landscape.

Katie Trozzo is a PhD student at Virginia Tech in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation and has a fellowship through the Matthews Foundation to facilitate the development of NTFP industries in Grayson and Carroll Counties. She also heads up a Virginia Department of Forestry grant in the Chesapeake Bay Region of Virginia to prioritize and catalyze agroforestry outreach.