Category Archives: Agriculture & forestry

The Future of Agriculture — in a Danville Industrial Park

by James A. Bacon

Newark, N.J.-based AeroFarms will invest $42 million to build its largest, most sophisticated indoor vertical farm to date in a joint Danville-Pittsylvania County industrial park. The project will create 92 new jobs.

Virginia competed with North Carolina for the project. Subsidies include a $200,000 grant from the Commonwealth’s Opportunity Fund, a $200,000 grant from the Governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund, $190,000 from the Tobacco Regional Opportunity Fund, and an unquantified tax benefit from locating in a Virginia Enterprise Zone.

Aerofarm’s business model is incredibly cool. The company uses proprietary aeroponic growing technology to “produce highly flavorful leafy greens at at rate 390 times more productive than field-grown plants,” states a press release from the Governor’s Office. The farming techniques use a fraction of the water and fertilizer of traditional agriculture. Continue reading

Marijuana Decriminalization in Virginia: Issues and Recommendations for Regulators

Photo credit: Snopes

By Don Rippert

Ready, fire, aim. In Virginia, it seems likely that the Democratic Party’s control of the General Assembly and Governorship will result in decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. This legislation will likely be passed in the 2020 session and go into law next summer. But what are the details of decriminalization? What specific policy decisions should our lawmakers consider when drafting the decriminalization legislation? Failing to consider these issues in advance of the legislative session could usher in a repeat of the shambolic attempt to legalize casino gambling in Virginia

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Virginia marijuana reform: Outlook for 2020

By Don Rippert

Cannabis certitude. The seemingly inexorable march toward legalized marijuana in the United States continues unabated. A poll of 9,900 American adults conducted by the Pew Research Center from September 3 – 15, 2019 found that 67% of the respondents thought cannabis should be legalized. That’s five percentage points higher than Pew’s last poll on the subject conducted in 2018. Many state legislatures are acting on behalf of their constituents. Legal weed sales began last Sunday in Michigan and will commence on New Year’s Day in Illinois. At the federal level the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill legalizing marijuana at the federal level. As of today 33 states have legalized medical marijuana and 11 states have approved the sale of recreational marijuana to adults. Six more states seem very likely to make decisions on legalizing recreational marijuana in 2020 – Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, New Jersey and South Dakota. As legal marijuana becomes big business pundits are predicting the future of legal weed. Arcview Market Research and BDS Analytics believe that medical marijuana will be legalized in every state by 2024 and recreational marijuana will be legal in 20 states by that date. Virginia is not among the 20.

Weed in the Old Ancient Pre-historic Dominion. Virginia is one of 15 states where marijuana is fully illegal. (Note: I do not count CBD oil sales as partial legalization). The first step on the long road to legalization is usually decriminalization. In 2018 Virginia’s General Assembly considered a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. It was killed along a purely party line vote in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.  In 2019 another decriminalization bill was considered. Virginia’s Republican leadership in the General Assembly couldn’t muster the minimal courage to take the 2019 bill to the full committee and killed it in sub-committee. Later that year the Republicans got their heads handed to them in the General Assembly election. What a surprise.  Now Democrats hold a trifecta in Virginia with control of the House, Senate and Governorship.  Once again, Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Alexandria) is the patron for proposed legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. However, this year unlike the past, Ebbin’s party is in control.

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Bacon Bits: Hemp, Housing and Solar

NIMBYs against hemp. Farmers across Southside Virginia have turned to growing hemp (the THC-free version used in industrial applications) as a replacement crop for tobacco. But at least one Dinwiddie County neighborhood has risen in revolt. A hemp farm near the Lake Jordan neighborhood emits an offensive odor. The smell is so bad that it’s getting into peoples’ houses and permeating their clothing, reports the Progress-Index. “We’re worried that they’re going to continue planting around, which would basically mean [that] people will have to leave or just tolerate unbelievable skunk-like odors,” said Jarrod Reisweber, a director of the homeowners association. Daniel Lee, vice chairman of the Board of Supervisors held out the hope that, if solutions could be found to control the odor of hog farms, a remedy could be found for hemp as well.

Amazon offers $20 million toward affordable housing. Amazon is offering $20 million to the Arlington County Affordable Housing Investment Fund in exchange for permission to build a bigger headquarters complex than county zoning allows. The sum would amount to the greatest single infusion of money into the fund, reports the Washington Post. Amazon wants to increase the size of its proposed 22-story office towers from 1.56 million square feet to about 2.15 million square feet, reduce the number of parking spaces, and increase penthouse height. If we assume an average of $50 per square foot for office space in Arlington, Amazon’s concessions are worth about $30 million. That’s gross value. Once construction costs are excluded, Amazon would net significantly less. By that comparison, the $20 million offer seems pretty generous.

Virginia Schools turn to solar. An increasing number of public and private schools in Virginia are utilizing solar power. The number of schools with solar has nearly tripled since 2014 — from 20 to 86, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. A niche industry has evolved in which entrepreneurs package solar Public Purchase Agreements (PPAs) in which schools put no cash down and start generating positive cash flow from the first year. Pete Gretz with the Middlesex County school system says that ground-mounted solar saved just under $50,000 at its elementary school site. “There’s no drawback to this,” he said. “It’s completely a win-win.” Continue reading

Northam Comes to the Aid of Menhaden (But is Chap Petersen Paying Attention?)

By Don Rippert

Fish tale. Omega Protein, a Canadian owned company, has willfully exceeded its menhaden catch limit in the Chesapeake Bay. You can read the details here. The catch limit is controversial since menhaden is the only marine fish regulated directly by the Virginia General Assembly. All other saltwater fish in Virginia are regulated by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. Every other Atlantic state lets their state fishery regulator and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) set rules for menhaden in their waters. The US Congress chartered ASMFC in 1942. So, ASMFC sets catch limits for Virginia waters – one for the Atlantic and another for the Chesapeake Bay. In Virginia those limits are then incorporated into proposed legislation for the General Assembly. The most recent AMFC-set limits were put into a bill that was never voted on by the General Assembly. This left Omega Protein with two catch limits – the limit last passed by the General Assembly (based on ASMFC guidance) and the most current lower ASMFC limit. Once Omega Protein admitted it had exceeded the most current ASMFC limit Virginia was reported to the US Department of Commerce as being “out of compliance.” Last week Gov Ralph Northam sent a letter to the Secretary of Commerce requesting the feds to put a moratorium on menhaden fishing in the Virginia waters of the Chesapeake Bay. It seems that Northam is sending the General Assembly a message — clean up your act or I’ll ask the Feds to clean it up for you. But will the new Democratic majority in the General Assembly listen to Northam or Omega Protein?

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Meatless food and the future of Virginia agriculture

Photo credit: Pymnts.com

By DJ Rippert

Chow time. Agriculture is Virginia’s largest private industry. No other private industry is even close. The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) claims that agriculture has an economic impact of $70 billion annually and provides more than 334,000 jobs in the Commonwealth. Virginia’s top agricultural products and their cash receipts are:

  1. Broilers (chicken) – $935M
  2. Cattle and calves – $413M
  3. Greenhouse / nursery – $306M
  4. Dairy products, milk – $306
  5. Turkeys – $236M

Of Virginia’s five top agricultural products four are under possible attack from a revolution in food technology – meatless meat. McKinsey & Company just issued the latest version of The Next Normal: Perspectives on the future of industries journal. The title? The future of food: Meatless. Some of the commentary in that journal ought to have Virginians wondering about the future of the state’s largest private industry.

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Marijuana legalization in Colorado: the good, the bad and the ugly

High there!  As Virginia politicians scramble to stake out positions on reforming marijuana laws in the Old Dominion ahead of this November’s elections, it is useful to look at the actual experience in Colorado after five years of legal recreational marijuana sales.  There is no universally accepted source of truth regarding the success or failure of Colorado’s marijuana legalization. However, many articles have been written regarding Colorado’s experience and the general perception seems to be positive albeit with some significant concerns. As Virginia moves down the road of marijuana reform its political class would be well advised to heed the lessons of those who have already gone down that path. Continue reading

Illinois to Legalize Recreational Pot: Implications for Virginia

Legal tokin’ in the Land of Lincoln. Illinois governor J.B. Pritzker is expected to sign Illinois’ recreational marijuana legalization bill tomorrow. Illinois, America’s sixth most populous state, will become the 11th state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. The District of Columbia has also legalized the possession of ganja. This has implications for Virginia.

First, Illinois is the first state to legalize the possession and sale of marijuana via the state legislature. Vermont’s legislature legalized the possession but not the sale of marijuana. All other states came to legalization via citizen led ballot initiatives. Since the Virginia Constitution has no provision for citizen-led ballot initiatives, the General Assembly would have to follow in the footsteps of the Illinois legislature to legalize marijuana in the Old Dominion. Illinois has proven this is possible. The second implication is the looming encirclement of Virginia by states with legalized recreational marijuana. The closer legal pot dispensaries get to Virginia the harder it will be for Virginia to stop cross border marijuana flows. Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Hydroponics, Seawalls, and Emotional Support Critters

The future of Virginia agriculture? Shenandoah Growers, an indoor agriculture company, is undertaking a $100 million expansion of its three locations in Virginia over the next year. The facilities not only grow vegetables and spices in greenhouses, they package and ship the produce, reports the Daily News-RecordLocating the greenhouses next door to the packaging facilities speeds the movement of produce from farm to market, preserving freshness. The website of the Rockingham County-based company describes its grand ambitions: “We are leveraging our indoor bioponic growing technology, national customer network, and distribution channels to be the world’s leading consumer brand of affordable, organic fresh produce.” 

Thirty-one billion bucks for seawalls? Protecting Virginia coastal communities from sea-level rise by building sea walls would cost $31.2 billion to build 4,063 miles of hardened infrastructure, according to a study by the Center for Climate Integrity. That price tag is exceeded only by the cost for Florida, Louisiana and North Carolina. Don’t take it too seriously. This is more environmental doom mongering, which the Virginian-Pilot of course accepts uncritically. The calculations are based on the unrealistic assumption that adaptation to rising sea levels takes the form of building sea walls. For example, the study tabulates the cost of building 645 miles of seawall in Accomack County, 299 miles in Gloucester, 231 miles in Mathews, and 218 miles in Northumberland — an economically idiotic approach to dealing with rising tides and flooding in sparsely populated areas. For the seven densely populated cities of Hampton Roads the cost would run $4.6 billion — a large number but doable, if spread over many years.

Tide turning against “emotional support animal” scam. Virginia landlords have long been frustrated by tenants who skirt lease restrictions by faking disability certifications to qualify their pets as emotional support animals. Continue reading

Sweet Briar Finds Niche in Artisinal Agriculture

A Sweet Briar student holds a honeycomb from one of the school’s beehives.

Women account for a rapidly increasing percentage of the nation’s farmers, and in that trend Sweet Briar College sees a business opportunity. The women’s college, which nearly shut down due to financial difficulties a couple of years ago, has no intention of competing with Virginia Tech’s traditional agricultural sciences program. Instead, it is building a program around artisinal farming.

Located on 3,200 acres in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Sweet Briar campus once was a working plantation with tobacco and agricultural crops. Now it hosts vineyards and beehives, and it is tearing out the old tennis courts to install a nine-bay, 27,000-square-foot commercial greenhouse. In the future, the school plans to raise livestock and plant orchards.

According to the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture, 56% of all U.S. farming operations have at least one female decision-maker, and the percentage of female farmers has been rising rapidly, reaching 1.23 million, reports the News & Advance. Says President Meredeith Woo: “We see a very interesting megatrend in which we want to be at the forefront and make sure that we’re educating women [and] exciting women about very interesting possibilities in this new century which they will own.” Continue reading

Virginia Cancels Trophy Rockfish Season

A photo from better fishing days

Update. On April 8 I wrote an article for this blog titled, “Virginia Trophy Rockfish Season under Threat of Cancellation.” Yesterday the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) voted unanimously to cancel Virginia’s trophy rockfish season. VMRC believes that the species has been overfished for the last six years and the stock of migratory striped bass is now below sustainable levels. In Virginia the recreational catch of striped bass declined from 368,000 fish in 2010 to less than 52,000 last year.

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Northam Waters Down Virginia’s Livestock Fencing Plan

Northam Administration vs The Chesapeake Bay. Two disturbing facts were brought to light last week. First, a survey of two agriculture-intense Virginia counties found that the effort to reduce agricultural pollution by fencing off farm streams from cattle is far behind schedule. Second, our supposedly progressive governor put forth a very watered down Watershed Improvement Plan that effectively eliminates the livestock fencing goals in the Commonwealth.

Cows do more than fart and burp. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, raised more than a few eyebrows when her New Green Deal included measures to curb the greenhouse gas effects of farting and burping cows. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez whimsically referenced the emissions of methane and nitrous oxide as digestive byproducts from many farm animals, especially cattle. While these emissions are a legitimate issue, a bovine prescription for Gas-X and Rolaids would not solve the problem. The production of meat in general, and beef in particular, has a sizable negative impact on the environment. Every step in raising, slaughtering, packaging and shipping meat adds to greenhouse gas emissions. Across the globe animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions (14-18%) than transportation (13.5%). However, the environmental impact of animal agriculture doesn’t end with greenhouse gas emissions. A 1400-pound Holstein steer produces 115 pounds of manure per day or about 21 tons per year. Some of this prodigious amount of manure finds its way from cows and steers to farm creeks and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay. The manure contains high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus which cause excess algae growth de-oxygenating the bay’s water. Many consider animal waste the biggest problem confronting the Chesapeake Bay. Continue reading

Tim Kaine and Mark Warner both embarrass Virginia with relief legislation vote

Midwest apocalypse.  As of March 30 satellite data shows that flooding caused at least one million acres of Midwest farmland to be covered in water for at least seven days in March. One million acres is 1,562 square miles. Up to a million calves may have died in Nebraska alone. This is a disaster of unprecedented magnitude. On April 1 a relief bill was put forth in the US Senate that earmarked $13.45 billion of aid for the Midwest and Puerto Rico.  Democrats killed the bill claiming that the amount allocated for Puerto Rico was too little. Both of Virginia’s U.S. Senators voted against providing relief to the U.S. Midwest and Puerto Rico.

Disgraceful.  Both Tim Kaine and Mark Warner claim to be members of the party dedicated to the little guy, the Democrats. To hear them tell it, the Republicans stay busy tending to corporate interests while ignoring the plight of average Americans. However, it was Kaine and Warner who decided to play petty politics with an aid bill that is desperately needed by our fellow Americans in the Midwest. Virginians should be ashamed to have elected these two senators. Continue reading

Brace Yourself for the “Food Justice” Movement

Richmond Food Justice Corridor “planting party”

“Food justice” is a thing now.

My first instinct when I read the phrase was cynical: While some people are busy running food banks and food pantries, growing urban gardens, and setting up grocery stores in Richmond’s inner city — you know, doing things that actually feed poor people — food justice warriors are busy advocating economic and political change.

As I looked into it, I decided my gut reaction wasn’t entirely fair — partly fair, but not entirely. The Richmond Food Justice Alliance, for example, has sponsored urban-gardening events and nutritional workshops. And some of the values it promotes — inner city citizens eating better, becoming food producers as well as food consumers, in sum becoming more self-sufficient — are actually quite admirable. The movement does appear to be pushing for some positive cultural changes in the inner-city black community.

Still, steeped in the rhetoric of the Oppression Narrative, food justice warriors seem hostile to the efforts of well-intentioned outsiders. There are signs that a rift has developed between African-American community militants and white liberals in the nonprofit sector who espouse similar goals. That doesn’t help anyone. Continue reading

The Marijuana Legalization Debate in Virginia: Lessons from Colorado

It’s a long way from Colorado to Virginia!

Elevated thinking.  I recently had the opportunity to do some skiing in Colorado. I hadn’t been to Colorado since the state legalized recreational marijuana use in 2014. I expected to see a Cheech and Chong movie played out on a vast scale high in the Rocky Mountains. That expectation went unmet.  Instead, I saw an American town where legal marijuana use has been incorporated into everyday life in a barely noticeable manner. Colorado has more pot shops than Starbucks outlets but you wouldn’t know that from a cursory visit. All of which got me thinking – what has been the marijuana legalization experience in Colorado and what lessons are there for Virginia?

Nil sine numine. “Nothing without providence.”  Residents of The Centennial State believe Colorado is guided by a “divine will.” After five years of “divine will” has legal pot turned into Rastafarian revelry or Puritanical perfidy? My unscientific poll of Coloradans riding various chairlifts and gondolas with me established a consensus of … “more good than bad”. Continue reading