Food is Life…but is it a Living? Helping Build the Eastern Shore’s Land-Based Economy

The Eastern Shore of Virginia. Composed of two counties, Accomack and Northampton, it is home to the famous Chincoteague Pony and 439 bird species. Attractions such as the vehicle-free community on Tangier Island, Assateague Island National Seashore, and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge are popular places to explore, bird, kayak, hunt, or fish.

The region, with its rich history, cultural traditions, and a unique sense of place, was the subject of a Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development feasibility study conducted for the Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission (ANPDC). The feasibility study determined the potential of a regional food hub to increase business opportunities for agriculture, aquaculture, and artisan enterprises.

To gain an understanding of the needs of people employed in these three enterprises, OED distributed a survey to people in the region involved in agriculture production, aquaculture production, and artisanry. In addition, OED engaged advisory team members in project conversations, facilitated several small-group input sessions, attended community meetings, and conducted interviews with a wide range of key informants.

The site visits to the Eastern Shore region were also significant in helping economic development specialists come up with recommendations. “Part of our job is to hear from as many perspectives as possible,” Scott Tate, associate director of OED. “We visited the Eastern Shore Food Hub, farms, fishing operations, and artisan spaces to get a feel for the communities in the Eastern Shore and speak with residents, including artisans and small agriculture producers.”

The Eastern Shore Food Bank, which Conaway Haskins, Extension Specialist for OED, visited, serves 11,000 unique clients who live in Accomack and Northampton County. This number makes up 25 percent of the Eastern Shore. “You see numbers, but being able to drive all across the Eastern Shore, and understand where people live and how transportation happens was really important, as well as being able to talk to people and see it through the eyes of the people who live there,” Haskins said.

Just a few of OED’s short-term recommendations included implementing strategies that expand access to regional produce and products, supporting the development of two commercial kitchens, helping farm startups, establishing an Eastern Shore regional brand, and arranging for mobile meat processing.

One possible way for the Eastern Shore to expand economic growth is to increase the supply of value-added agriculture and aquaculture products. A value-added product takes an agricultural product and converts it into something that can be sold at a retail marketplace, such as a jam, jelly, or wine. An example of this is Quail Cove Farms, an Eastern Shore Company that is making potato chips from the Eastern Shore’s uniquely-flavored Hayman sweet potatoes.

The Eastern Shore currently has two publicly-accessible commercial kitchens in the development process; one in the Mary N. Smith Cultural Enrichment Center on the northern end of Accomack and another in the Rosenwald School in Northampton. OED recommended the region support the growth of these two kitchens, as they could provide an incubator function for food business opportunities in the region. The Mary N. Smith Cultural Enrichment Center was originally a segregated Black high school, which a group of alumni wanted to preserve, and the Rosenwald School was a segregated Black school that is being preserved by local residents and entrepreneurs.

“It was very important for them. They had a lot of memories, of what their community had gone through in enduring the periods of Jim Crow. They’re trying to make sure that the cultural history gets preserved to tell the story of the African-American community on the Eastern Shore, but also plugging into these economic development initiatives by renovating the school and using it as a commercial kitchen space,” said Haskins.

OED recommended that Eastern Shore leaders find ways to provide technical support to the kitchens, promote their efforts, and offer training and workshops to help more people start food product businesses.

While a regional food hub does not look feasible for the Accomack region at the moment, the growth of the region’s small to mid-size producer base, the support for collaborative agriculture activities, and the emergence of an intermediary organization may support a central food hub facility in the future.

“We were able to give them a path toward strengthening their local food economy without investing in an expensive facility and new construction that might not yet make sense for them,” said Tate.

Photo by Dylan Sauerwein on Unsplash

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