By Lindsay Kuczera 

With an appetite for growing his own food, 2020 Virginia Tech Master of Natural Resources (Online) alum Richard Gustafson found himself at the intersection of conservation, food policy, and sustainable agriculture. Gustafson recently started a new position as a soil conservationist with Madison county in North Carolina. There, he makes connections with local Appalachian farmers and helps write conservation plans to help each farmer achieve their individual needs as a community provider while protecting their natural resources for decades to come.

From foodie to farmer
What sparked it all was Gustafson’s post-undergrad backpacking trip in South America where he worked on farms in Argentina and became passionate about farm-to-table cooking. He imagined this would lead to a culinary career, and when he returned to the United States, he began farming on his property outside of Asheville, North Carolina. Shortly after, Gustafson was working for a forestry non-profit when he met a Virginia Tech alum and learned about the MNR (Online) program.

Gustafson enrolled and instantly started connecting the dots between his past work and his passion for farming, finding his niche in agricultural sustainability. In fact, he credits Dr. Jennifer Jones’ Food Policy & Sustainability course for inspiring him to make a career transition to his current role. The course reinforced his passion for food issues and sustainability while looking at landscapes, land use, and conservation. He now directly applies the skills he learned in class to his job as a soil conservationist.

Forming connections for localized conservation
In one instance, Gustafson worked with a small organic farmer who provides a vegetable CSA for 13 families within a mile in a remote valley of Appalachia. Since they did not have a very good water source for irrigation, Gustafson helped put together a cost share program so they could install a solar well. “By implementing conservation practices like this, you’re allowing people to have access to better food,” he explains.

With the effects of climate change worsening, local farmers are particularly vulnerable to increasing drought and flooding. In Appalachia, many of the farms are passed down through generations, instilling pride and a deep commitment to preserving the land. With additional pressure from encroaching urban sprawl, a good working relationship between farmers and local government ensures agricultural land is kept sustainable and viable—avoiding the need to sell the farmers’ land to developers.

Collaboration at the root of sustainability
A large aspect of Gustafson’s job is forming personal connections and engaging the community. Every week, he visits different landowners and listens to their needs. Sometimes he’s writing conservation plans, giving conservation technical assistance, or implementing cost share programs—at other times, he’s sitting on their porch talking about the weather and gas prices. Whatever the day brings, it’s always a collaborative experience, where creating plans to mitigate each individual’s natural resource concerns is at the forefront.

VT MNR alum Richard Gustafson

Gustafson also noted the great inter-agency and inter-office collaboration he’s seen in his role with the county, and how the MNR program helped prepare him for such an experience. “I think a lot of times in conservation we sort of get in our silos and we don't collaborate as well as we should. The program really helped me with that,” he says.

Although he came from a global perspective and is now working at a localized level, these grassroots conservation approaches that Gustafson is helping to implement are applicable in any country and in any community.