Plant Forward

Kyle LaFerriere

Virginia Living (Farming) Summer Smith

Summer Smith getting ready to launch a drone on her farm in Wise County.

Innovation helps improve Virginia’s agricultural future.

When Summer Smith wants to check her fence line for damage after a storm or look for a newborn calf, she doesn’t set out on foot to search her 100-acre Wise County beef cattle farm. Instead, she calls on a small assistant that can do the work in a fraction of the time: an aerial drone. “What you can see 50 or 100 feet in the air” means that “in a matter of minutes,” she can do work that once would have taken her much longer, she says. “I have six small hay fields, and if I had to walk all six of those, I would be a week doing that. I can use the drone and do it in six hours.”

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

Virginia Living (Farming) Summer Smith

Some residents on Smith’s farm.

A single parent who, in addition to working her farm, also holds down a full-time job as a database manager in the Wise County office of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Smith immediately recognized the potential benefits of a drone when she was introduced to one through her county position. And she sees the time saved as opportunity. “GIS work is my day job, but farming is my passion,” says Smith, whose land has been in her family for generations. She used to have a market garden, but it was too much to manage on top of all her other responsibilities. With the drone, she says, “If I can save enough of the time I need to manage my cattle, maybe I can get back into the produce. I’d love to start a hothouse.”

Smith, who volunteers introducing drones to area farmers as well as to students in the local schools, is something of an evangelist for the potential of technology to help not only sustain farming as a way of life in her community, but also to build opportunities for young people and strengthen the resilience of southwest Virginia. Farmers have always been innovators, she says, and she imagines a future where the region could lead the state in practical applications of cutting-edge technologies.

A Growing Challenge

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

Virginia Living (Farming) Farms

Summer Smith’s high-tech farm.

Agriculture is Virginia’s largest private employer and central to its economy and culture; together with forestry, it generates an economic impact of more than $90 billion for the state. But Virginia’s agriculture sector is also challenged. The state has been losing both farms and farmlands for decades, only around half of Virginia’s farmers say farming is their “primary occupation,” and there’s a growing shortage of agricultural labor. Tight economic margins between the rising costs of inputs (like seed, animal feed, or fertilizer) and the market value of agricultural products add to the pressure of a business perennially subject to the unpredictabilities of nature. And the average age of Virginia’s farmers is nearing 60, reflecting a nationwide graying of America’s farm population.

How, then, will Virginia sustain its agricultural economy and successfully transition it to the next generation and beyond?

The Future Is Technology

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

Virginia Living (Farming) Early Mountain Vineyard

Tim and Ben Jordan checking the vines.

Technology will be a key part of the answer. To maximize productivity and efficiency while protecting and preserving resources, the farms of Virginia’s future will still be soil, water, plants, and livestock, but they will also be data hubs, genome sequencing, robotics, and satellites.   

Ben Jordan is the winemaker for Early Mountain Vineyards in Madison and a partner with his vineyard-consultant brother, Tim, in a small vineyard on their family’s farm. The Jordans believe that Virginia’s varied climates and soils could produce great wines, but that building a Virginia wine industry to last for generations will depend on letting go of some traditional varieties not bred for Virginia’s growing conditions and embracing new hybrids. Technology could enable the transition. Where producing successful hybrids was once a painstaking, years-long progression of trial and error, today genetic sequencing (not “engineering” but “understanding the genome of plant material,” stresses Ben) is unlocking the secrets of some of the revered classical varieties and offers the possibility of speeding up the process. “I see great potential in using our understanding of genetics to really breed for place,” says Ben. 

Kyle LaFerriere

Virginia Living (Farming) Early Mountain Vineyard

A vineyard weather station.

Another traditional agricultural practice getting a high-tech makeover is the labor-intensive work of milking cows. A few Virginia dairy farms have installed automated, computerized robotic milking systems that in essence allow the cows to milk themselves on their own schedule. While the setup involves intensive training both for the dairy operator and the cows themselves, once the system is fully operational, a GPS transmitter on the cow allows the animal entry into a milking stall, where it receives a measure of feed, and laser guides on a robotic arm attach the milking device to complete the milking process. “The computer knows the last time they were milked and how much milk they gave;” if the cow doesn’t need milking, the system won’t activate, explains Morgan Paulette, an agriculture and natural resources extension agent for Pulaski County.

More experimentally, Virginia Tech assistant professor of animal and poultry science Robin White is working with a team of engineers on developing a “bio-inspired” robot that could be given to a cow like a pill to transmit real-time data on a cow’s digestive system. If the nutritional needs of an individual animal could be determined with a tool such as this “rumen robot,” White explains, it could be possible to reduce the economic and environmental waste of overfeeding by creating a kind of automated “cow vending machine” that, in communication with the robot, would deliver a feed mix precisely calibrated to meet those needs. 

The Future Is Data

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

Virginia Living (Farming) Early Mountain Vineyard

Tim Jordan checking the weather station.

These technologies lie within an approach known as “precision agriculture” that leverages technology, and its data-gathering and analyzing capabilities, to increase efficiency and improve production while preserving economic and environmental resources. Precision strategies might include real-time monitoring of individual livestock, breeding plants for a specific growing environment, using arrays of tiny sensors in a field to monitor microclimate conditions like temperature or soil moisture, or deploying a drone equipped with thermal or infrared sensors to assess and address crop conditions plant by plant.

Already, smartphone and tablet apps, and other online and digital services, are offering tools for everything from managing workflow and business operations, to accessing weather information, soil data, and satellite imaging, to using GPS to guide tractors for precision planting and harvesting. 

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

Virginia Living (Farming) Early Mountain Vineyard

Testing grape hybrids at the Jordans’ Fort Defiance vineyard.

Vineyard consultant Tim Jordan says that his “number one piece of technology that every vineyard should have” is an internet-connected weather station. “A weather station can tell you how much rainfall you have had, how long the leaves have been wet, how much humidity is out there, heat, cold—all those things that feed into a decision-making system for every farmer.” Such weather stations are widely available, offering features such as wireless connectivity and remote monitoring via computer or app.

Integration of data will prove even more valuable to realizing the possibilities of precision agriculture, with tools that allow farmers to look at the interacting variables specific to their own location. At Virginia Tech, where the Blacksburg campus and 11 agricultural research and extension centers (ARECs) around the state have long served as “living laboratories” for research and education, a growing number of initiatives aim to make precision agriculture accessible for Virginia farmers.

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

Virginia Living (Farming) Catawba Sustainability Center

Goldenseal at the Catawba Sustainability Center.

One such project, from Tech’s Center for Geospatial Information Technology (CGIT), is GeoVine, an online tool designed for, and built in consultation with, Virginia’s wine industry. “In order to grow high-quality grapes, you need high-quality sites,” explains Peter Sforza, director and research scientist for CGIT. GeoVine allows users to build an individualized “site report” intersecting data about climate, soil, topography, disease models, grape varieties, weather conditions, and more to help assess, design, and manage a vineyard. “This tool is really about understanding the site and the grape variety fit,” explains Sforza. 

Another initiative in development is the SmartFarm Innovation Network. Beginning with the Tech campus, ARECs, and individual Virginia Cooperative Extension offices—and in the longer term hopefully including individual farms—this integrated network will focus on developing and deploying innovative technologies for Virginia’s agricultural community. Last year Tech announced a partnership with WeatherSTEM, an education-oriented “weather intelligence provider,” to install WeatherSTEM’s monitoring stations at the ARECs and Blacksburg campus; real-time weather data from the monitors can be accessed online or via an app. Over time, and with continued growth of the network, this data may make it possible to develop predictive capabilities to plan for future weather conditions and events.

However, several significant obstacles lie in the path of realizing the potential of data-driven precision agriculture for Virginia farmers. The first is connectivity. Many rural parts of the state lack reliable cell phone coverage, and a governor’s task force has estimated that more than a quarter-million Virginia households still lack broadband internet access. Education will also be essential. “The growers are really very interested in the use of new technologies, but they may not even know how to use the ones they already have,” says Maria Balota, an associate professor and peanut specialist for the Tidewater AREC. Finally, points out extension agent Morgan Paulette, there is the question of the actual value these technologies can deliver. “The capability of technology has surpassed what we have figured out to do with the data,” he says.

“Virginia is in a good position and ready now to make the big push into technology and data,” agrees Peter Sforza. At the same time, he says, farmers are overwhelmed by all the options, and it’s important for the experts to really listen to what farmers need, rather than inventing something in a lab and delivering it. “If you build from the bottom and meet the needs of where they are right now, that is how you get them to the future.”

The Future Is Sustainability

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

Virginia Living (Farming) Summer Smith

Vegetable selection from Summer Smith’s farm.

With that approach in mind, says Sforza, there’s a growing emphasis in agriculture on systems-level thinking—understanding “how science, people, and agriculture come together.” When people talk about sustainability in agriculture today, they mean literally sustaining an intermeshed and interdependent system of natural resources, living things, people, and economics, not just for this season, for next year, or even for the next decade, but for the next generation and beyond. 

At Virginia State University, where the College of Agriculture’s research focuses particularly on supporting smaller and limited-resource farmers, horticulture extension specialist Chris Mullins points out that “sustainability” includes economic viability—a greater challenge for small-scale farmers. With increasing consumer interest in food that is fresh, local, and sustainable, however, greenhouse production is one promising area of growth. An innovative project Mullins is involved with at the university’s 416-acre Randolph Farm is a greenhouse-based aquaponics system, which combines fish farming in tanks and hydroponic vegetable production, and can operate on a small footprint (even a backyard garden). As water from the tanks circulates through the plants, effluent from the fish serves as a natural fertilizer, while at the same time the water is filtered and returned clean to the fish tanks.

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

Virginia Living (Farming) Catawba Sustainability Center John Munsell

John Munsell in the forest.

Economic and environmental sustainability combine as well in Virginia Tech professor and forest management extension specialist John Munsell’s work to help Virginia become a leader in “forest farming,” the intentional cultivation of non-timber forest products such as mushrooms, ramps, and woodland botanicals like ginseng and goldenseal. Traditionally often wild-harvested, these forest products are increasingly in demand from markets as varied as traditional medicine and upscale farm-to-table dining. Intentional forest farming, Munsell explains, helps support the health and biodiversity of forest lands, encourages forest landowners to sustain this important natural resource, and assures consumers “that what is being purchased is being managed and that there is a long-term vision to maintaining the plants and productivity.”

A long-term perspective is also behind Sweet Briar College’s commitment to focusing on agriculture and sustainability as “an academic priority,” says Lisa Powell, director of the college’s Center for Human & Environmental Sustainability. A core class in the curriculum is called “sustainable systems,” says Powell, while other course topics include agricultural operations, natural resources management, and the economics of wine. In addition, notes Powell, “With more than 2,800 acres in a diverse landscape, our campus is essentially a giant laboratory and a giant classroom,” with resources including a 20-hive apiary, 20 acres of planted vineyards, a community garden, and a newly completed 26,000-square-foot greenhouse. 

Photo by Kyle LaFerriere

Virginia Living (Farming) Lisa Powell

Lisa Powell in the new Sweet Briar greenhouse.

“Students are going to be surrounded by agriculture, regardless of what they study. We hope this helps them cultivate a greater appreciation for agriculture and what goes into cultivating food,” says Powell. As a school that seeks to foster leadership in its students, Sweet Briar anticipates that its graduates will be able to bring that understanding “of how agriculture and food production is influenced by so much more than what happens in the field or greenhouse” into future roles as leaders, not only in agriculture but potentially also in fields such as law, policy, or business, says Powell.

The Future Is Our Legacy

It’s easy to take for granted Virginia’s abundance—the colorful bounty piled high at your local farmers’ market, the “locally grown” signs in your grocery store, Virginia wines on the table, and dairy cows grazing in Shenandoah Valley fields. But to assure that abundance for the future means taking a perspective that’s intergenerational and multigenerational and recognizes that the choices we make today—whether as producers or consumers, policymakers or voters—will be our legacy for those Virginia generations to come. 

Agriculture, says Peter Sforza, “is not just maximizing outputs and yields for profits, but understanding that the ecosystem, services, and value of agriculture go way beyond these.”


This article originally appeared in our October 2020  issue.

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