The Catawba Sustainability Center is implementing alley cropping — a farming practice that uses rows of trees and shrubs to protect crops, diversify farms, and build soil quality.

  •  The Catawba Sustainability Center in Roanoke County provides 377 acres where Virginia Tech researchers can examine sustainable farming methods on the hills and hollers of a typical central Appalachian farm.
  • The center shares best practices with local farmers to help them increase their income while also protecting the environment.
  • A 9-acre demonstration plot at the center showcases the benefits that farmers can reap from alley cropping.

What are the benefits of alley cropping?

Alley cropping can provide farmers with a diversified source of income, as they can harvest the crops as well as fruit and berries from the trees and shrubs. This can help to reduce the risk of crop failure and improve the overall resilience of a farm.

The trees used for alley cropping are chosen for leafy foliage and provide shade and windbreaks for the crops. They also can provide nutrients to the crops through their leaf litter — dead plant material that’s fallen to the ground — and roots.

Meanwhile, beneath the ground, the trees and shrubs also improve soil structure and fertility, which can lead to increased crop yields.

According to the center’s manager, Adam Taylor, the rows of leafy windbreaks also help

  • Reduce water loss
  • Decrease soil erosion
  • Help the soil soak up water
  • Protect crops from pests and diseases
  • Provide food and shelter for a variety of wildlife, improving the overall biodiversity of the area

“By using agroforestry practices, we're looking at doing agriculture in a way that is climate smart. We’re using trees to build the soils for the crops,” Taylor said. “So instead of high inputs of fertilizers and chemicals and things like that, we're using nitrogen-fixing trees and leaf foliage to build organic matter in the soil to allow the crops to thrive.”

How can I learn more?

A free Appalachian Sustainable Development Alley Cropping Fundamentals Workshop — in collaboration with Center for Food Systems and Community Transformation, Virginia Cooperative Extension, and other community partners — will be held Sept. 21 at the center at 5075 Catawba Creek Road, Catawba. Participants will see firsthand how to design and implement alley cropping on their own farms as well as how the method can ensure the long-term health of their land while producing more food.

The workshop will be led by

  • Taylor, who implemented the practice at the center
  • Megan Giroux, an agroforestry practitioner and technical service provider
  • Stesha Warren of Appalachian Sustainable Development

If you are an individual with a disability and desire an accommodation, please contact Taylor at 540-588-0283 or

Growing community-university partnerships

The College of Natural Resources and Environment, the Edwards Mother Earth Foundation, and Roanoke County, a longtime partner of the Catawba Sustainability Center, supported the creation of the demonstration plot. The center is part of Outreach and International Affairs.

Virginia Tech students working with VT Engage planted more than 100 trees and shrubs — thornless honey locust, tulip poplar, and red mulberry trees mulched with comfrey, false indigo, and blueberries — to form the crop alleyways. Those areas will be used to grow heirloom dent corn, alfalfa, and winter squash.

Appalachian Sustainable Development also hosted agroforestry workshops over the summer at Kentland Farm in Blacksburg and the Southern Piedmont Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Blackstone.

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