Vertical farming takes root in Virginia

While AeroFarms’ Virginia location will be the largest vertical farm in the state once built, it won’t be the only one. Over the past few years, other operations have quietly been putting down roots. Shenandoah Farms in Rockingham operates a large-scale facility that grows herbs and lettuces. In Lorton, Beanstalk grows a range of greens. Fresh Impact Farms in Arlington, which grows herbs, greens and edible flowers, announced an expansion this spring in conjunction with the governor’s office. Babylon Micro-Farms in Richmond is developing sophisticated technology to spread small-scale vertical farms around the country. Other efforts are underway.   

“We’re in a great position on the East Coast in terms of population centers,” said Scott Lowman, director of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Innovation Center at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research in Danville. “And it’s a friendly environment for business, and we have a legacy of hard-working labor.” 

Where CEA has found a growing niche is in the produce most familiar to the average Virginian: lettuces, herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, herbs, microgreens and more. Experiments in growing strawberries indoors are also underway, and Evans pointed out that once legalized, marijuana may not be far behind, although the federal government’s continued classification of the plant as illegal will keep institutions like Virginia Tech from working with it. 

For consumers of these products, the idea of local food grown only a short distance away is increasingly appealing. That can be an argument in favor of controlled environment agriculture and vertical farming. “It’s getting a whole new generation of folks interested in agriculture. It’s a different type of agriculture, but it’s getting a lot of students,” said Evans. At Virginia Tech’s School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, he added, “we have to change our curriculum for what we’re teaching to prepare students interested in controlled environment agriculture.” 

For a younger generation increasingly concerned with social and political justice, the opportunity offered by controlled environment agriculture and vertical farming to fill food deserts and involve local workers in local food systems is an attractive prospect. Many students are eager to look beyond the existing agricultural structures, said Githinji, who recently received a $600,000 grant from the U.S. National Institute of Food and Agriculture to explore the use of “micro-farms,” which incorporate vertical farming systems, as a way to address food deserts in urban neighborhoods. 

The field’s growing popularity is also driving a need for more workers, more expertise and more training, said many of the people interviewed for this story. The Controlled Environment Agriculture Innovation Center in Danville, itself a recipient of $365,000 in state grant funds in 2020, is key to that effort. So too are plans announced by the governor’s office last month that will see hydroponic greenhouse startup Sunny Farms build a 1.2 million square foot greenhouse in Virginia Beach — one of the largest on the East Coast — and work with Virginia Tech and the Virginia community college system to develop educational training in controlled environment agriculture.  “Our goal is really to support the controlled environment agriculture industry in Virginia, but we’re also working on creating an innovative controlled environment agriculture ecosystem in Virginia,” said Evans. 

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