Sustainability: The dance goes on

Farm at Sunnyside owner Nick Lapham stands amid a yellow sea of lance-leaved coreopsis, eastern gama grass and echinacea in one of his native-plant meadows. Staff Photo/Roger Piantadosi.

As if it wasn’t enough of a challenge to follow all the rules and guidelines necessary to have your products designated as “organic,” Nick Lapham has also tackled . . . biodiversity.

Certain newspapers that would attempt to cover certain rural Virginia counties filled with singularly distinctive people must exercise caution when calling out one of them for being distinctive, but — really, there are not many hereabouts who are attempting what the Laphams, Nick and Gardiner, are trying to do with the 422 Harris Hollow acres they bought from David Cole as the original, short-lived Sunnyside Farms mogul left in 2006.

“We’re trying to, first, grow food,” says Lapham, as he and a guest hunkered over a map of their Farm at Sunnyside before a recent informal tour. “And to grow biodiversity. And . . . to explore where those two things intersect.”

The Farm at Sunnyside is one of two organic farms in the county, the other being Sperryville’s significantly smaller Waterpenny Farm, and Sunnyside grabbed a few national spotlights briefly in 2009 when First Lady Michelle Obama shopped for the photographers at Sunnyside’s stall in the farmer’s market opened near the White House.

Not a bad thing when the poster for the nation’s budding sustainable-food, local-food movement features your local organic farm prominently. But not necessarily a lasting boon, or a license to put your feet up and relax.

A male and female pair of red-winged blackbirds keeps an eye on things in one of Sunnyside’s native-plant meadows. Staff Photo/Roger Piantadosi.

Anyway, this does not appear to be the sort of thing you’d expect from Nick Lapham – who divides his time between his family’s home in D.C. and the farm here, with the majority of his time at the farm. The farm sells a lot of produce at the Dupont Circle farmers’ market in D.C. most warm-weather weekends, and sells shares in its local CSA program. It offers a wide array of organic vegetables and fruits (Cole had planted 20 acres of cherry, peach and other orchards) and organic eggs.

But Lapham, who serves on the boards of the American Bird Convervancy and the National Council of the World Wildlife Fund, and who has been coming to Rappahannock County since his father bought property here in 1971, always wanted to attempt something more than a raise-’em, ship-’em-out operation.

He and Gardiner put the farm into a Virginia Outdoors Foundation conservation easement in 2008. He began talking to folks he knew at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) the Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC) and to people like Bruce Jones, who’s been growing biodiverse, native habitats on a much smaller scale but for a much longer time at his place on Long Mountain.

Lapham hired a biologist, Sam Quinn, to do the soil, water, weather and wildlife tests and surveys.

He has planted several large native-grassland meadows over the past year, and though the experiment as yet has no clear results, a recent tour of the grasslands — and the fence rows and borders between the active produce and orchard tracts – revealed at least one completely visible difference.

Sunnyside grower Melissa Cox helps make one of Sunnyside’s greenhouses a green home. Staff Photo/Roger Piantadosi.

Over a standard hay meadow of tall, yet-uncut fescue, nothing moved — no birds, no butterflies, no bees. Nothing else but straight green shoots grew in the hayfield — which is, of course, what’s supposed to happen in a hayfield. But a brief walk into one of Lapham’s new native-plant meadows was like walking into some giant, acres-wide glass jar where Goliath’s kid brother keeps his collection of butterflies, wasps, bees, hummers, blackbirds, swallows and a bunch of buzzing, jumping things too small to identify.

“Native grasslands are one of the most endangered habitats in the country,” Lapham says. So he’s keeping a close eye on the populations of quail and eastern meadowlarks. Some of the work is done conjunction with PEC and SCBI programs meant to encourage “working landscapes” that connect and diversify wildlife habitat; some of it is improvised experimentation.

For some of it, he could have charged admission — like the full day of front-end loader work last winter needed to take out some 200 invasive alianthus trees, an Asian import with a knack for taking over.

So far, Lapham says, “I have lots of anecdotal evidence that this is making a difference.”

But, he points out, “when we first got the farm, I didn’t know any of this.”

As far as sustainability goes, Lapham says the honest answer to the question — is the Farm at Sunnyside a sustainable operation? — is that he doesn’t know yet.

“There are so many ways you can look at sustainability,” he says. “Are we viable financially, are we sustainable in terms of how we’re taking care of the ecosystem and the environment, are we socially sustainable — doing right by the people who work here?

“I think the only way to look at it realistically is to take a long-term perspective. We’re still tweaking our business model, and we’re not yet fully sustainable, not in the definition I gave — but we’re closer than I thought we were going to be when we started four years ago.”

Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 545 Articles
Former Rappahannock News editor Roger Piantadosi is a writer and works on web and video projects for Rappahannock Media and his own Synergist Media company. Before joining the News in 2009, he was a staff writer, editor and web developer at The Washington Post for almost 30 years.