Virginia Farmers Propose Diverse Strategies for Future Food Supply

Swoope farmer Joel Salatin integrates his vegetable farming with his beef operation. Photo courtesy Polyface Farm, Millpond Photography.

After Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin toured the massive new AeroFarm facility near Danville, he made some remarks to the corporate and local officials assembled: “The emotion when you walk into that facility is one that feels like you’re in a science fiction movie and you can’t believe what’s going on.” 

It does seem like science fiction. AeroFarm grows crops on a gigantic scale without soil or sunlight, and its executives say indoor vertical growing, one form of controlled-environment agriculture (CEA), produces nearly 400 times the harvest (in this case, greens) than farms using traditional methods. The company’s news releases cite other benefits:  fresh, local food in any month; year-round, rather than seasonal, work for employees; an environment impervious to climate change; recirculating water; no pesticides. At 138, 670 square feet, the AeroFarm operation is the largest operation of its kind in the world.

But not for long.  Last year, Youngkin announced that California-based Plenty Unlimited Inc. will build the world’s largest indoor vertical farming campus, a $300 million investment, in Chesterfield County. Plenty already has an advanced indoor farm in Wyoming, with more than 200 patented technologies for producing crops year-round on massive grow towers. Plenty plans to complete its Richmond Farm campus in stages over six years, and to create at least 300 full-time jobs. The first farm will be a Driscoll’s berry farm, expected to come online this winter. Once completed, the state will have the first company with vertically farmed strawberries at this scale. Plenty describes its benefits in much the same way as AeroFarm, claiming preservation of scarce resources, resilience in food systems, and the same enormous increase in yield. 

Better Future Farms is constructing a 15-acre greenhouse in Louisa County.

The “local food” angle has made the concept appealing to some environmentalists, who envision these food production powerhouses rising up out of abandoned lots, perhaps next door to the restaurants that use their produce, perhaps in food deserts that lack any retail source of fresh food, reducing the environmental impact of transporting food. Others question the sustainability of operations that replace sunlight, which is free, with thousands of layers of LED lights, costly to begin with, consuming enormous amounts of electricity, difficult to dispose of without damage to the environment, and rendered useless in the event of a long-term outage. According to the 2021 Global CEA Census Report, vertical farms use more than 7 times the energy per unit of produce than traditional greenhouses do.

A Greenhouse Guy

“That’s why I’m a greenhouse guy,” said John McMahon. Gazette readers will recognize McMahon as the founder of Schuyler Greens. During the pandemic, he joined other local growers to gather and deliver fresh vegetables to Crozet porches. Greenhouses use natural sunlight, but modern models are also considered controlled-environment agriculture because state-of-the-art sensors match nutrients with individual plants, adjust water to hours of sunlight, and keep temperatures at the ideal level. They also reduce pesticides and use less fertilizer than commercial field-grown plants. The most environmentally conscious of them collect and recirculate water. 

During the pandemic, John McMahon of Schuyler Greens collaborated with other local growers to bring a variety of produce to Crozet-area residents. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

Like many of us, McMahon believes that progress in agricultural methods is good. Intelligent management of traditional farms, plus appropriate innovations of all types, will be needed to feed the world, but he has some questions about the vertical model. 

He points to the failure of some of the world’s most ambitious indoor towers. The steep rise of energy costs in Europe has caused many vertical farming enterprises there to either go out of business or greatly reduce their work force. Closer to home, the Danville Register and Bee reported that AeroFarms itself filed for bankruptcy in early June, a development the company said only reconfirms its commitment to the new Danville location. McMahon said perhaps the best use of sun-less vertical agriculture might be in parts of the Middle East, where the climate is harsh, the soil parched, water scarce, and energy cheap and plentiful.

Meanwhile, McMahon said, the Netherlands is by far the largest distributor of vegetables to other European countries since it embraced the greenhouse model shortly after World War II. He’s toured the tiny country with other entrepreneurs in the controlled-environment world and has seen how technology has helped the country provide for itself as well as its neighbors. “The Netherlands were just so destroyed in the war, and they determined they would find ways to increase their food supply,” he said. He noted the long-time presence of large and small greenhouses all over Europe that put sunlight to use. Many use traditional soil-based methods and have done so for many decades. In contrast, an indoor vertical operation, GlowFarms, based in the Netherlands, shut down after less than three years. 

McMahon is now a founder and the chief operating officer of Better Future Farms, Inc., a company building a hydroponic greenhouse on 61 acres in Louisa County. His partner in this enterprise is David Drescher, a technology and sustainability entrepreneur. Besides their joint interest in CEA and sustainability, both men have conventional farming backgrounds and continue to operate their own small farms. McMahon plans to use his Schuyler Greens greenhouse for research. You won’t see a “Schuyler Greens” or even a “Better Future Farms” label in stores: the company will market through Taylor Farms, the country’s biggest salad and fresh-cut vegetable producer. They’re the owners of the popular “Earthbound Farm” greens, presently field-grown in California. Better Future Farms will also sell to stores with their own private labels.

Once finished, Better Future Farms will produce millions of pounds of lettuce a year. Submitted photo.

When the Louisa operation is finished and at full capacity, it’s expected to harvest several million pounds of leafy greens every year. Technology will help collect water from the massive roof to water the different lettuce mixtures. It will also adjust the shading and water temperature to respond to outside heat and light. McMahon doesn’t anticipate the 400-fold yields that vertical farms promise, but he believes the massive new greenhouse can produce ten to 20 times the yield you might see from field-grown lettuce. One advantage to the planned indoor operation is a cleaner product, one that’s not exposed to pathogens or insects.  

State Support

Virginia has intentionally welcomed entrepreneurs selling high-tech agriculture. Governor Youngkin’s 2023 budget amendments provide $1,250,000 more in fiscal years 2023 and 2024 for grants and loans to advance the industry. Plenty, the Chesterfield County project, received a $2.4 million grant and a $500,000 grant from various state sources. Virginia approved a $200,000 grant for Better Future Farms, which Louisa County will match. 

Other support for the Louisa operation, as well as for the other CEA startups, comes from the Virginia Talent Accelerator, a program where Virginia funds community colleges to train students for exactly the kind of specialized work that each new CEA start up requires. And in May, the Governor signed two bills expanding the agricultural sales tax exemption for items purchased for CEA commercial facilities and announced plans for a “Great Indoors” Virginia symposium next month.

Technical advances in CEA will increase the yield of crops like lettuce, strawberries, cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers, but despite the claims of some in the controlled agriculture world, McMahon believes that the CEA phenomenon is unlikely to keep humanity alive should field crops disappear.  We’re talking about lettuce here, which provides about 100 calories per pound. The hungry parts of the world that have little access to meat, and even those that do, tend to rely on more calorie-dense vegetables.  

“Staple crops like corn, soybeans, potatoes and wheat are so cheap and easy to grow in fields that it doesn’t make sense to create an indoor environment for them,” McMahon said. Greens and strawberries are a little different: They require similar cool temperatures and don’t ship well, making them good candidates for controlled culture near their markets, presumably freeing up fertile fields for other crops.

In vertical farming, each layer of greens grows beneath a layer of LED lights. Image courtesy AeroFarms.

If high-tech, indoor culture of vegetables is only a small part of the solution to feeding the world as the population balloons to 10 billion, what are other answers? The World Resource Institute has an exhaustive list of efforts we should embark on now. Some of them include reducing waste from damage, spoilage, and shipping, something the new Virginia start-ups will address. Others involve making better use of fields now in production with better, less environmentally harmful fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. Others encourage somehow dialing down the world’s hunger for meat, changing the globe’s extensive grazing acreage over to crops that directly feed humans. 

Regional Food

Only a few experts talk seriously about returning to regional food cooperation and security, something McMahon addressed when he included the many products of Central Virginia orchards, greenhouses, gardens, stock farms and bakers in his pandemic-era deliveries. 

Joel Salatin is the owner of Polyface Farms near Staunton, and he’s the undisputed champion of the sustainable food movement. His ability to thrive and grow during the pandemic proved his commitment to local food security. He, like McMahon, joined with other producers in a cooperative that served his neighbor’s dietary needs beyond what he could supply, and they’ve kept it going, weathering shortages in grain caused by the war in Ukraine, the steep rise in egg prices, and other gaps caused by supply chain problems. He doesn’t scorn all technology. In fact, he attributed the success of the cooperative approach to his ability to reach producers as well as customers online, and he uses hi-tech electric fencing and shade cloth to increase efficiency.

Joel Salatin is an advocate for regional food independence. Courtesy Polyface Farm, Millpond Photography.

Salatin characterizes himself as a “Christian, libertarian, environmentalist, capitalist, lunatic farmer,” but there are many who would argue with the “lunatic” part.  Dr. Jonathan Foley is a climate and environmental scientist, writer, and speaker who directs Project Drawdown, the world’s leading resource for climate solutions. In a recent column titled, “No, Vertical Farms Won’t Feed the World,” he writes: “An interconnected network of good farms—real farms that provide nutritious food, with social and environmental benefits to their communities—is the kind of innovation we really need.”

Salatin encourages individual as well as community self-reliance. Much of his writing and speaking has to do with encouraging people to do what they can for their own sustenance. He doesn’t agree that we’re running out of farmland. In an interview with Tom Carey of the Orange Observer, Salatin said, “There’s still so much we can do using traditional methods. This country has 35 million acres of lawns, 36 million acres for recreational horses, and we haven’t even touched golf courses. Cornell University did a study, and the state of New York has 3.1 million acres of fallow farms, land that is no longer working farms.”

Victory Gardens

Is an increase in small and large homesteads a realistic approach? It’s worked before. According to the Journal of Public Health, we planted 20 million victory gardens in 1943 at the request of our government. By 1944, Americans were growing 10 billion pounds of food, more than 40 percent of our food supply. More recently, Covid inspired 18.3 million new gardeners. Between them and experienced gardeners, they grew nearly 50 percent more than before the pandemic. Burpee, the venerable seed company, had to turn away any new orders for the first time in its more than 100-year history. 

Salatin is more closely identified with his humane and sustainable beef, chicken and hog operations than with produce, but he has about a half-acre of vegetables closely aligned with the management of his animals. His methods are a kind of do-it-yourself model of controlled-environment agriculture. As he lets the animals out from the hoop houses in the spring, he fills the already-enriched soil with vegetables, starting with sweet corn. 

During World War II, Americans grew 10 billion pounds of food, more than 40 percent of our food supply.

“We do a lot of micro-site gardening,” Salatin told Carey. “Shiitake logs under the eaves of the barn get the roof dripping on them. Where the cows are kept at the hay shed in the wintertime, the deep bedding gets churned up muddy and heavily fertilized, almost compost. We grow our potatoes there. It’s already tilled up, and so we just set the potatoes on the ground under some straw.”

By another barn with a southern exposure, Salatin and his children grow cucumbers, training them up the side of the barn to get moisture dripping from the awnings. In context, his words were meant to encourage readers with small spaces to take advantage of them in ingenious ways. “You can get a lot of space real quick using micro-sites,” he said. 

Will his message reach enough people to make a difference? That’s one of the reasons he cites for writing more than a dozen books. In them, he appeals to people to grab their own lifelines, whether it’s their personal garden, patronizing community food production, stocking their larders or improving their own culinary skills. That way, he told Carey, “You are not dependent on cheese spread and frozen pizza.” 

These steps towards community and personal independence are very doable things that anyone can learn, Salatin said, “But it does take effort. No lasting change ever comes without some effort.”

Prices and Demand Remain High for Beef

In February, economists predicted record cattle prices this year, fallout from farmers forced to thin herds during the pandemic and the drought affecting half the nation’s cows. The prediction was made at the 2023 Cattle Industry Convention in New Orleans. According to reports in Cattle Fax, experts predicted 550-pound calves might bring as high as $225 per hundred weight, up $29 from last year. Valley and Piedmont cattle have done that well and even better, according to statistics released for July by Staunton Union Stockyard. Virginia has not suffered much from drought. At the end of July, most regions reported adequate rainfall. 

Steers and heifers weighing 400 to 600 pounds have been selling well, with the top earners bringing $222-$255 per hundred weight.

Meanwhile, the Food Institute noted that Americans ate more beef last year than they’ve eaten in a decade, for an average of 58 pounds a person, in spite of retail prices averaging $7.35 a pound. 


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