TOP STORY, Aug. 4, 2015
Va. ag board tours farms, aquaculture operations
By NANCY M. SMITH
PAINTER, Va. — A day-long tour of agriculture and aquaculture operations in Accomack and Northampton counties was the highlight of a meeting of the Virginia Board of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which held its quarterly session on the Eastern Shore for the first time in five years on July 20-21.
Board members from throughout the state and Sandra J. Adams, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, met at the Eastern Shore Agricultural Research and Extension Center.
A group of about 40 board members, agriculture department officials and others began their day following potatoes from harvest to packing at Dublin Farms in Horntown, Va., where potatoes have been grown every year since 1876. The farm is operated by the fourth and fifth generation of the Hickman family.
Joined by Theresa Long, Accomack County agriculture and natural resources Extension agent, the group toured the 25,000 square foot packing house, where the ancient art of potato growing meets the 21st century. An optical sorter scans potatoes fresh from the field and separates the finest potatoes from those with scuffs from harvesting equipment and other blemishes. Potatoes then go into massive cooling rooms designed to remove field heat from the potatoes and extend their shelf life.
Dublin Farms has received Good Agricultural Practices certification from the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service since 2010.
Refreshed by the time spent in Dublin Farms’ chilled processing facility, board members moved on to Pacific Tomato Growers in Melfa, Va. Wedged into two bays of the Eastern Shore Farmers’ Market, the brightly lit, highly mechanized operation packs more than a million boxes of grape tomatoes in three months.
No photographs are permitted inside the facility, where dozens of employees sort and pack 300,000 to 400,000 pounds of tomatoes per day. The entire operation is highly mechanized; employees even “punch in” for the day’s work using facial recognition software.
Board members were especially fascinated by equipment that filled the clamshell boxes, familiar to every shopper. The clever automated way in which the equipment closed the boxes got a lot of attention.
The largest little neck clam producer in the United States, Cherrystone Aqua Farms of Cheriton, Va., was the group’s next stop. A subsidiary of the Ballard Fish and Oyster Company, another fifth-generation Virginia enterprise, Cherrystone operates clam and oyster hatcheries and nurseries, as well as growing beds at the site.
Cherrystone demonstrated how it breeds and nurtures microscopic clams and oysters on an algae-rich diet in the hatchery until they are large enough to move to the nurseries and ultimately be placed in growing beds until they reach marketable size. The beds are in waters adjacent to Cherrystone’s packing facility, in the James River and in other Chesapeake Bay and ocean locations, managed by some 26 growers.
Board members learned that all harvested shellfish in Virginia must come from state-certified clean growing waters and have a state tag affixed. All two million to five million clams marketed weekly by Cherrystone carry the information on their packaging.
The firm shipped 90 million clams in 2014, all sorted and packed at the tour site.
The multi-generation family farm theme continued as the group visited C&E Farms in Cheriton, Va., one of the largest snap bean operations in the eastern United States. C&E’s Virginia plant packs 5,000 to 10,000 bushels of beans per day during its six-month season.
A continuous supply to the plant is assured with a planned planting schedule for the 65 contract growers from Morehead, N.C. to Allentown, Pa. Additional operations in Florida assure practically year-round fresh green bean production.
The company, begun two generations ago, pioneered hydrocooling of beans with 38 degree water to reduce the just-harvested beans’ temperature to 40 degrees, thereby extending their shelf life, said Justin Colson, operations manager and grandson of the company founder.
The tour group marveled at the highly mechanized operation that packs about a million bushels of beans per year. They watched the equipment, all custom-made to C&E’s specifications, sort beans fresh from the field. They were especially interested in a machine that judges the beans’ color with an optical scanner and automatically removes undesirable beans from the packing line.
The long day ended for board members and their party at Mattawoman Creek Farms in Cape Charles, Va. Operated by Rick and Janice Felker, the USDA Certified Organic farm grows a variety of vegetables, fruits and herbs.
Rick Felker told the group he raised 295,000 seedlings from a single 1,500 square foot building in 2014.
He showed off permanent raised beds and the customized equipment used to cultivate and irrigate them. Rick said he has found that burying drip tape results in deeper roots and lower water usage for crops grown in the raised beds.
Started 10 years ago and covering 44 acres, the operation has four community supported agriculture programs spanning 40 weeks per year and sells at two farmers’ markets and through the Virginia Beach Whole Foods Market.
“All produce is sold within 65 miles of the farm,” Rick said.
In addition to produce, the farm is a contract clam grower for Cherrystone.
The Felkers escorted the group to the creek shore that borders the farm and discussed the challenges of growing clams in an area frequented by pleasure boats, which inadvertently destroy the netting covering the clams.
Hognose rays feast on the seafood when it is uncovered by the boats.