Category Archives: Agriculture & forestry

PHCC Drops Agricultural Degree Programs — Why It Matters

Farm sales by Virginia locality 2012, taken from the StatChat blog. Red circle shows location of Martinsville/Henry County.

The Patrick Henry Community College in Martinsville has dropped its agricultural degree program along with certificate programs in horticulture and viticulture. Between declining enrollment in the programs and state budget cuts, it is no longer feasible to offer the courses, President Angeline Godwin told the Martinsville Bulletin.

Many people might view this flotsam in the torrential current of news coverage as utterly without interest. To Bacon’s Rebellion, the story is imbued with deeper significance in at least two ways.

Market-responsive education. First, it shows how at least one community college is responsive to market forces. Each degree program is the functional equivalent of a product line. The agriculture/horticulture/viticulture product line wasn’t selling in the Martinsville-Henry County area and could not be operated at a profit. So PHCC eliminated the program. Wise decision. As the map above shows, there was not enough farming activity in Henry County in 2012 to register any farm sales. While there still may be some hobby farms, career farming in that part of the state appears to be a defunct vocation.

Virginia’s colleges, universities and community colleges offer literally thousands of product lines — everything from two-year degrees in agriculture to four-year degrees in Tibetan language studies. Some programs are in greater demand than others. Some programs are more “profitable” than others — profitable in the sense that the share of tuition revenue attributed to class enrollment exceeds the cost of employing faculty and administrative overhead to teach them.

Public colleges and universities in Virginia must seek approval of new degree programs by the State Council for Higher Education in Virginia — and SCHEV does not act as a rubber stamp. The council scrutinizes requests and sometimes sends them back for revision or reconsideration. But once an institution gets the OK for a degree program, SCHEV does not monitor its ongoing progress. I have seen no evidence that even the Boards of Trustees of the institutions themselves track the enrollment numbers in degree programs. Do college administrations even compile these numbers? Surely, they do, for they must have some rational basis for deciding how to allocate resources for hiring faculty. But if they do, the public never sees these numbers.

The PHCC article reminds us that some degree and certificate programs fall out of favor. PHCC made a good business decision by shutting down three for which demand had evaporated. But note this: The college acted out of the necessity caused by cuts in state support. Would it it have acted otherwise? Who knows?

My question is this: How many other zombie degree programs are there in Virginia’s system of higher education that are shuffling around half-dead? Could Virginia’s colleges and universities combat runaway costs by chopping out the deadwood?

The decline in farming. The second lesson to learn from this seemingly innocuous article is that inhabitants of what we think of as “rural” Virginia appear to be losing interest in pursuing rural livelihoods, the most notable of which is farming. Based on farm sales, the only part of Virginia where large-scale agricultural operations takes place is the Shenandoah Valley.

When we think about rural economic development in Virginia, one would think that farming would be a major underpinning of the economy. After all, one thing rural Virginia has is a lot of land. Inexpensive land. And Virginia has water. We don’t have to fight wars over water rights like farmers do in California and the Inter-Mountain West. As manufacturing jobs dry up, why aren’t people turning back to farming to make a living? Is the work too hard — it is work that Americans don’t want to do anymore? I don’t know the answer. But the question seems important to ask.

Bacon’s Mushroom Theory of Economic Development

Pennsylvania mushroom farm

Pennsylvania mushroom farm. Photo credit: Wall Street Journal

We’ve all heard the mushroom theory of management — shovel s*** and keep ’em in the dark. Well, brace yourself for Bacon’s mushroom theory of economic development.

Almost half of America’s mushrooms are produced in Chester County, Pa. After peaking in 2014, however, production has declined slightly in recent years. A big problem: a labor shortage. Reports the Wall Street Journal:

Most mushroom growers have failed in efforts to recruit locals for harvesting jobs, which can bring in as much as $50,000 a year but often require workers to start by 5 a.m. and put in six days a week.

“We’d love to get people who live in this area,” said Meghan Klotzbach … regulatory manager for Mother Earth. “They graduate from high school, they just go to Wal-Mart to work. Why can’t you come here and pick mushrooms?”

Chester enjoys no natural advantages in mushroom growing, which takes place indoors, in the dark, using composted soil. The concentration of the industry in this one Pennsylvania County is a historical curiosity, dating back to two Quaker flower growers in 1885 who discovered they could use wasted space under their carnation beds to grow mushrooms. The region maintains its dominance in part due to an elaborate supply chain that funnels large volumes of manure to the farms. But mushrooms can be cultivated anywhere.

Indeed, they are grown in Virginia. A quick Internet search reveals at least three mushroom farms: North Cove Mushrooms in Charlottesville, Sharondale Farm in Cismont (near Charlottesville), and Urban Choice, which is located in the Scott’s Addition area of Richmond.

The Virginia mushroom farms are small enterprises that sell mainly to farmer’s markers and local restaurants. If labor is a constraint in Chester, Pa., why can’t Virginia farmers take up the slack? Wouldn’t $50,000 a year sound like good money to workers in rural Southside and Southwest Virginia (or for inner city workers in Richmond)?

The Washington, Hampton Roads and Richmond metropolitan regions represent a vast market for fresh, locally grown produce of all kinds. Rural Virginia needs more, better-paying jobs. Mushroom cultivation could fit the bill. Find a couple dozen niche agricultural products like mushrooms, and we could see a rural revival in the state.

Just a thought….

Name this Flower!

My wife and I were walking along the James River this morning when we came across this beautiful little flower, which appears at roughly life size in the photo to the left. We have no idea what it is. Does anyone recognize it?

The flower most often appeared in clumps, like that seen at right. It clearly prospers in the shade.

I don’t recall ever seeing this blossom before. The plant of which it is part is pleasant enough in appearance and would be an asset to any garden, even when not in bloom. If the plant is native to Virginia (I am partial to indigenous species), I would love to have it in my garden.

Update: That didn’t take long. LarryG identified the flowers as bluebells, a common flower. I guess I don’t get out enough.

Update: Turns out that there is an annual Bluebell Festival in Merrimac Farm in Prince William County! That’s coming up in one week.

Hmm, hmm. Oreo-Infused Hornswoggler Beer!

Hornswoggler's new Oreo-infused beer

Hornswoggler’s new Oreo-infused beer

Let me start by saying, I love the name of Hornswoggler. If there’s anything that could move me to drink craft beer, it’s a name like that. And let me also say that, regardless of what the nutrition scolds have to say, I love Oreo cookies. But Oreo-infused beer? That just doesn’t seem right to me, and I’m not even a beer purist.

Richmond-based Veil Brewing Company debuted its new offering, Hornswoggler Chocolate Milk Stout with Oreos a week ago. Stated the company on its Instagram page: “We took our 7% robust chocolate milk stout Hornswoggler and conditioned it on hundreds of pounds of Oreo cookies. If you like Oreo cookies, this is a must try.”

Veil is shooting for the sale of 55 to 80 cases. I wish these gustatory innovators the best of luck. But I can’t help but wonder if Oreo-infused beer is a sure sign that we’ve reached Peak Craft Beer. What’s left to try? Kelp-infused beer?

Really, truly, I just made that up. Then I Googled “kelp beer.” And it seems that a craft brewery in Maine has already done it. I feel like we’re living in the End of Times!

Wild Life in the New Dominion

new_dominion2

Forget the bears, bobcats and coyotes. Camera traps near Virginia’s Mountain Lake Biological Station, manned by Virginia Tech researchers, have captured photographs of a strange hominid species. So reports Motherboard.

More Mead!

Silver Hand Brewery in Williamsburg. Photo credit: Daily Press

Silver Hand Meadery in Williamsburg. Photo credit: Daily Press

With the explosion of breweries, wineries, distilleries and cideries around the state, Virginia was missing only one thing: meaderies. The taste for mead, made from fermented honey, died out after the Middle Ages but it appears to be making a comeback as the craft revolution gains momentum.

more_meadPurcellville has the Stonehouse Meadery (opened in 2013), Richmond has the Black Heath Meadery (opened in March), and the Silver Hand Meadery in Williamsburg (opened last month). There may be others. I can’t keep up.

I, for one, have never tasted mead, but it sounds great. I can hardly wait to don my Viking helmet, sit around a long, wooden table with my chums, clank tankards, talk too loudly and pinch waitresses. (If my wife is reading this… I’m just kidding about the pinching, honey, unless you’re there, too, in which case, watch out!)

— JAB

Pipelines and Property Lines

Charlotte Rea. Photo credit: All Pain, No Gain

Charlotte Rea. Photo credit: All Pain, No Gain

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline wants to inspect land along a proposed 550-mile route. Legal challenges from landowners could re-write a 2004 law governing property rights in utility surveys.

by James A. Bacon

Charlotte Rea decided when she retired that she wanted to live near where she grew up near Charlottesville. She found “a little piece of heaven” in Nelson County: a 29-acre spread on the north fork of the Rockfish River. With her retirement savings, she purchased the land with the idea of keeping it undeveloped if things worked out but selling two lots if she needed the cash. “All of my money is in the land,” Rea says. “It’s my long-term care insurance.”

She never imagined that someone would want her land for industrial purposes. But her homestead, as it turns out, came to be situated on the proposed route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) linking the natural gas fields of West Virginia with markets in Virginia and North Carolina. The 125-foot pipeline right-of-way would cut a swath across the river and through forested wetlands on her property that host a species of rare orchid. An ag-forestal district designation restricts development and prohibits industrial uses, she says. “Except it appears Dominion can industrialize it by running a pipeline through it. My property  will become an underground natural gas storage site.”

Since announcing its original plans, ACP has redrawn its proposed route, leaving her property untouched. But Rea doesn’t consider the new route to be definitive, and she is little reassured. “My future is totally blown up, not knowing what’s happening to my property. No one wants to buy land with a natural gas pipeline going through the middle of the view shed. I stand to lose $50,000 in property value. I couldn’t sleep at night worrying about the darn thing coming through.” 

The 63-year-old career Air Force veteran decided to fight back, signing up as co-chair of the “All Pain No Gain” group opposing the pipeline. Not only does Rea not want to see the pipeline built, she objects to ACP or its contractors even coming onto private property to survey the land. And she is just one of dozens of landowners who view the pipeline the same way.

Dominion Transmission, ACP’s managing partner, filed suit this spring in local courts against more than 100 property in order to gain access to their land. Many, like Rea, were clustered near the Blue Ridge mountains in Augusta and Nelson Counties. A local judge ruled that the notice letters had been improperly issued by Dominion Transmission, so the pipeline company withdrew the pending cases and started re-filing lawsuits as ACP. As of early July, says Rea, she knew of 27 re-filed lawsuits. Meanwhile, pipeline foes have filed two of their own lawsuits in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the state law.

The lawsuits are shaping up as the Old Dominon’s biggest battle over property rights in years. The courts will be called upon to define the balance between landowners like Rea who wish to be left alone and utilities like the four corporate partners of the $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline — including Virginia energy giant Dominion, Duke Energy, AGL Resources and Piedmont Natural Gas — who argue that there is a compelling public need to build more gas pipelines as electric utilities replace coal with gas in their fuel mix. The legal outcome could influence other pipeline projects as well. Three groups besides ACP have expressed possible interest in building pipelines from the West Virginia shale fields to markets in Virginia and points south.

Pipeline foes make two overarching arguments. First, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has not yet issued a certificate declaring the ACP project to be in the public interest, says Joe Lovett, an attorney with Appalachian Mountain Advocates. Because ACP cannot yet argue that the pipeline is for “public use,” it has no right to survey land without the consent of property owners.

Second, pipeline foes say, landowners deserve compensation for survey crews tramping over their property. The right to exclude others from entering your property “is one of the most important rights in the bundle of property rights,” says Josh Baker, an attorney with Waldo & Lyle, one of the preeminent landowner rights firms in Virginia. When multiple survey teams — ACP lists five different categories of crews — enter the property, they can cause considerable inconvenience. While the Virginia code allows for “actual damages” resulting from a survey, it allows nothing for inconvenience.

Dominion asserts that it is fully within its rights to conduct the surveys as long as it complies with requirements to request permission in writing to inspect the land and then provide a notice of intent to enter. Obtaining a certificate of public convenience and necessity from FERC is necessary to acquire land through eminent domain authority but not to survey land, says Jim Norvelle, director media relations for Dominion Energy. Surveys are governed by state law.

As for land surveys constituting a “taking,” there is plenty of legal precedent to support ACP’s position, Norvelle says. “We do not expect to damage anyone’s property when surveying. In the unlikely event there is some damage, we will reimburse the landowner.”

A half century ago, pipelines in Virginia were either intrastate pipelines under State Corporation Commission jurisdiction or they were segments of interstate pipelines built and “stitched together over time,” says Jim Kibler, who was active in eminent domain litigation in Virginia before joining Atlanta-based AGL Resources as senior vice president-external affairs. Local public utility commissions, including Virginia’s SCC, provided most regulatory oversight. Continue reading

Richmond Is Better with Bacon

festival

It was 96° degrees in the shade yesterday at the 17th Street Farmer’s Market, but thousands of people showed up for the second annual Richmond Bacon Festival. With all those bacon lovers gathered in one place, I felt the love! Dozens of restaurants and confectioners had set up booths peddling bacon-flavored drinks, bacon-flavored candy and everything in between. Due to a tight schedule, I had time to sample only a small portion of the delicacies available, but every morcel I ate was delicious. The saying is true: Everything is better with bacon.

hot_baconThe pepper-bacon concoction pictured to the left was spicy and very tasty … but, I must say, a bit over-priced for $4. That translated into $1 per bite (or $.50 per nibble). While I do share the view that bacon is the main ingredient of the ambrosia of the gods, there are limits to how much I’m willing to pay even for ambrosia.

IMG_1057 The pork taco seen at right was more satisfying. Strictly speaking, pork is not bacon. But it’s close enough. This taco was delicious, and there was enough of it to stick to the ribs.

The best tasting confection (no photo, alas) might best be described as a gourmet hot pocket — crispy bacon and cheddar cheese baked inside a hardball-sized piece of bread with a slightly crusty exterior. Hmm hmm good.

Some people think of the hamburger as the quintessentially American food. To be sure, burgers are yummy but there’s not much room for subtlety or nuance in the preparation of a burger. By contrast, bacon lends itself to infinite experimentation. As the foodie culture continues its take-over of American cuisine, I expect to see ever more bacon-driven innovation. Three hundred and sixty-four days seems way too long to wait until the next festival!

— JAB

Adapting to Climate Change: 11 Proposals

UR_proposals

Working under the direction of University of Richmond professors Peter D. Smallwood and Stephen P. Nash, eleven UR environmental studies majors wrote papers on topics relating to the environment and climate change in Virginia. Each paper defines a problem and lays out a practical solution. All eleven papers are compiled in a document entitled, “Nature Virginia’s Economy, and the Climate Threat.” The papers are of such interest that I re-publish the abstracts below. — JAB

Seed Banks: An Insurance Policy Against Extinction from Climate Change
by Casey Schmidt

Climate change is causing the ranges of native species to shift northward at a pace that outstrips the ability of many plant species to migrate and adapt. … Although assisted migration, the process of relocating individuals or spread of seeds through human intervention, has been used successfully in some cases to preserve species, it comes saddled with potential ecological damage, and legal complications arise when these ranges cross state lines.

These complications threaten Virginia’s biological diversity, especially among rare plants and those plants from habitats affected most by climate change. In order to preserve the genetic diversity of native species before populations become isolated and inbred, this paper proposes that Virginia create a seed bank. Seed banks have been used for a variety of reasons worldwide to preserve the genes of plant species, including the preservation of crop species and for research purposes. … For this proposed seed bank, Virginia would use information collected by the state Natural Heritage Program to identify eligible species that face the greatest threat from climate change in order to preserve biodiversity, establish a genetically diverse sample for research, and potentially reestablish these endangered species in the future.

Branching Out: How Virginia Can Use Trees Strategically to Combat Biodiversity Loss
by Taylor Pfeiffer

Biodiversity loss is a consequence of climate change. As greenhouse gas emissions increase global temperatures, decreases in the abundance and diversity of species has reduced ecosystem resiliency during these changes. … Weakened ecosystems decrease the environment’s capacity to provide humans with services like safe drinking water, fuel, and protection from natural disasters. …

The agricultural industry plays a unique role in this environmental conversation, as farmland both contributes to climate change and is jeopardized by the negative effects created by the issue in a complex reciprocal cycle. This relationship, along with the presence of 8.3 million acres of farmland in Virginia, suggests that agriculture should be incorporated into the state’s climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies. …

Agroforestry, the strategic integration of trees in agriculture to create a sustainable land-use system, has been utilized for environmental benefits in the past. … This paper proposes the creation of a statewide program that requires the use of agroforestry on large farms in order to preserve biodiversity in the wake of climate change. An alternative solution is a certification program for farmers who use agroforestry practices to enhance wildlife habitat. Economic incentives and implementation assistance will encourage participation, while funding for the establishment of this program, creation of publications, and organization of events will be sourced from governmental and private grants.

Continue reading

Pulp and Circumstance in Chesterfield

Gov. Terry McAuliffe talks with Jerry Peng of Tranlin

Gov. Terry McAuliffe talks with Jerry Peng of Tranlin

By Peter Galuszka

Jim Bacon has a fascinating cover story about the future of Short Pump in the latest Henrico Monthly magazine.

Not to be outdone, I humbly point out that I have a cover story in the Chesterfield Monthly, a sister publication.

I explain how Chesterfield County, the state and other officials landed Shandong Tranlin, an advanced paper mill in the eastern part of Chesterfield. At $2 billion, it’s the biggest Chinese greenfield project ever planned in this country.

The story actually starts when Jerry Peng, a Chinese businessman who happened to go to the Darden School at the University of Virginia, went to the U.S. to look for a place for a new type of paper plant. After becoming frustrated looking on the U.S. West Coast, he plugged his Hoo connections in Virginia and “Project Cavalier” was born.

In less than two years, Virginia and Chesterfield landed the plum. It will employ 2,000 within a few years. It is a story about how county, state and private industry worked quickly and well together. The whirlwind of negotiations credits both former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, current Gov. Terry McAuliffe and their staff.

The pulp mill is expected to be less polluting because it does not use trees for pulp but uses leftover farmfield waste such as wheat and corn stalk. There is little air pollution because most processes involve steam. There is no extremely toxic dioxin produced because there is no bleaching of paper product. Leftovers are then collected into a “black liquor” that supposedly can be used as a less polluting farm fertilizer which may be used by Virginia farmers that now use polluting fertilizers harmful to the Chesapeake Bay.

It just so happened that Chesterfield had all the right ingredients – proximity to farm field waste; ample highway and rail connections, a large, skilled workforce; deepwater access, lots of process water from the James River and plenty of locally-available power.

It’s is part of a switch in economic policy by the Middle Kingdom. After three decades of drawing in foreign investment, Beijing is now looking for advanced industrial countries. That is why a Chinese firm spent $4 billion to buy Smithfield Foods. Now, there’s Shandong Tranlin.

I do have my doubts about the much-touted environmental benefits of the project, having been to China and seen the enormous industrial pollution there. Air quality in Beijing or Shanghai is routinely many times the highest permissible levels in the West. But plenty of people seem to think that Shandong Tranlin is on to something.

Let’s hope so.

(Note: the Henrico and Chesterfield Monthly are doing some interesting new journalism in the area. Watch for them.)