RVA tech

A CEA Summit in Danville this week emphasized Virginia’s capability to be a leader in this industry.

Virginia is working to be at the forefront of the fast-growing controlled environment agriculture industry. And, based on information shared at this week’s CEA Summit East, it’s in good shape to achieve this goal. 

Controlled environment agriculture, or CEA, is a technology-based approach to farming. Factors like temperature, humidity, airflow, light and water are controlled to try to produce optimal conditions for growth.

Familiar examples of controlled environment agriculture include greenhouses and hydroponics. It’s become popular because of its ability to be more productive, fresh, local, and environmentally friendly than traditional farming. 

Virginia has seen increased interest and investment in CEA recently. Two CEA companies, New Jersey-based AeroFarms and California-based Plenty Unlimited, Inc. both located in Virginia this year. 

AeroFarms in Pittsylvania County is the largest aeroponics farm in the world, and Plenty in Chesterfield County is the largest investment in indoor vertical farming in the world at $300 million. 

Virginia competed with five other states for Plenty, according to the Sept. 14 release from Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s office. This “further advances the Commonwealth’s reputation as a leader in the fast-growing industry of controlled environment agriculture,” the release said.

AeroFarms and Plenty join a host of other CEA companies in Virginia, such as Babylon Micro-Farms in Richmond, Red Sun Farms in Pulaski County, Greenswell Growers in Goochland County, and Soli Organic (which just secured $120 million to expand its CEA operations) in Harrisonburg. 

More examples are listed on the Virginia Economic Development Partnership’s website, which calls Virginia “a top state in the CEA industry” due to access to international markets and supply chains, access to natural resources, and access to talent from the state’s many community colleges and universities.

Virginia’s deep history of agriculture also makes it well-positioned to succeed in CEA, said Kaylee South, assistant professor at Virginia Tech and member of the Controlled Environment Agriculture Innovation Center in Danville.

South helped organize the inaugural CEA Summit East, an event that brought together industry experts to share information and network Oct. 25 and Oct. 26. 

The event had around 230 attendees from 28 states, and it featured keynote speeches from AeroFarms CTO Roger Buelow and Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Matt Lohr. 

There were also over 40 other expert speakers on a variety of panels and sessions that discussed topics like selecting technologies for CEA operations, finding funding, and workforce development. 

The event was held at Danville’s Institute for Advanced Learning and Research. It was co-hosted by the Controlled Environment Agriculture Innovation Center and Indoor Ag-Con, an annual trade show and conference for indoor agriculture held in Las Vegas. 

Suzanne Pruitt, event director for Indoor Ag-Con, said the Las Vegas show has attendance from 48 states and 28 countries. 

And within this global industry, Virginia stands out as a great location for CEA, Pruitt said. Here are some reasons why.  

Government support for CEA

Stephen Versen, with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said the state has made “recruiting and supporting CEA a core focus of our work” during a panel at the event. 

Versen is project manager for the Agriculture and Forestry Development, which he described as the economic arm of VDACS. Not many other states have an entity like this that administers a specific grant program focused on agribusiness, he said. 

The Governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund (AFID) was created 10 years ago to provide sorely needed resources in agriculture, Virginia’s largest private sector industry, he said. 

“Agriculture is Virginia’s largest private industry by far, with nothing else coming a close second,” the VDACS website says. “Every job in agriculture and forestry supports 1.7 jobs elsewhere in Virginia’s economy.”

Agriculture in Virginia has an economic impact of $70 billion annually and employs over 334,000 people, according to VDACS.

“[AFID] is an example of how the state has developed resources to allow us to partner with local governments and our industry partners to get results on the ground in Virginia,” Versen said. 

Lohr also talked about AFID during his keynote speech, saying that the state appropriates $1.5 million per year into this program, and VDACS is working to increase that amount. 

“In the last 10 years, we’ve had over $1 billion of economic capital investment in these projects,” Lohr said. “Our grants range from $25,000 to $1 million depending on the size of the operation, the number of jobs and CAPEX investment.”

In addition to financially driven resources like AFID, the state has many resources to support other aspects of CEA, like workforce development and international marketing, Versen said. 

He was joined on the panel by Carl Gupton, president of Greenswell Growers, and David Lopez Restrepo, head grower at Babylon MicroFarms. 

“VDACS has been a champion of Babylon for quite a while now because we need venture partners and help importing and exporting,” Lopez Restrepo said. 

Babylon MicroFarms produces small indoor farms, about the size of a bookcase, for places like universities, corporate cafeterias, retirement homes and libraries. 

“We’re installing products in different places, even internationally, and finding out the tariff code can be a bit difficult,” Lopez Restrepo said. “It’s been great to have help from the state with that.”

Gupton said the state department helped Greenswell Growers, a large-scale indoor greens producer, connect with the grocery sector and service sector to sell their product. 

These two sectors are “archaic,” Gupton said, in that they move very slowly. So, it can be hard for them to get involved with CEA, which moves very quickly. 

But “VDACS helped make those introductions for us, they teed it up,” Gupton said. “We closed two major retailers, and VDACS was a big part of that. They were with us from the start, from the idea to the execution, and now to the growth.”

Strategic location 

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