From sprawling, thousand-acre farms to smaller, urban operations, Virginia’s agriculture industry is not only diverse in the commodities it produces, but in the physical size of growers as well.
FresH2O Growers in Stevensburg is a family-owned greenhouse business that specializes in growing local hydroponic, organic lettuce. The company was founded in 2013 by Joe Van Wingerden, who has extensive experience in the greenhouse business. The operation currently grows eight different types of lettuce and packages them for both retail and wholesale outlets.
“We produce over 6 million heads of certified organic lettuce annually in 5 acres of hydroponic production,” Mary-Scott DeMarchis of FresH2O Growers says. “We have plans to max out our entire 12-acre facility, as our mission is to make fresh, healthy, organic foods available and affordable to as many people as possible, whether that means in our hometown, our home state, regionally or nationally.”
She adds that currently most of the lettuce in the U.S. is sourced from the West Coast, which is 3,000 miles away from Virginia.
“Our goal is that every Virginian can have a fresher, locally produced crop available year round.”
FresH2O also focuses heavily on food safety, and DeMarchis says the lettuce is greenhouse-grown in a safe environment throughout the year.
“The water system is protected and the plants are grown in a clean, enclosed environment to protect them from harsh contaminants,” she says.
Consumers who enjoy the company’s lettuce can rest assured it will stay fresh longer in the refrigerator and retain more nutrients because the roots help keep the plant alive longer after harvest.
Engel Family Farms
On the other side of the size spectrum, Engel Family Farms operates about 22,000 acres of row crops, including white and yellow corn, soybeans, wheat, barley, grain sorghum and rapeseed.
When Kevin Engel started the farm, he didn’t have any inherited land that was passed down to him, so to help with finances he decided to rent land until he could afford to buy. He now owns land in Virginia and a little in North Carolina and rents the rest.
“Our white corn is sold to flour mills, and many of them make grits that are used in Richmond and the surrounding areas,” Engel says. “We also supply a lot of yellow corn to the poultry industry in the valley, to some swine producers and to a large dairy in Virginia.”
Engel says that renting a large amount of land works well for him, and it’s important to remember that even though they’re growing the crop, they’re still cultivating someone else’s land.
“We may be renting the land but we’re guests on that land while we’re working there. A lot of the landlords we have take pride in knowing their land provides food and fiber to the public,” he says.
Engel adds that although he works on a large scale, small operations like FresH2O Growers are just as important to keep Virginia agriculture thriving.
“All of those different types and sizes of agriculture contribute to our everyday lives,” he says. “There are types that can’t necessarily work on a really large scale, but it takes smaller operations to fill the needs of the state. They’re just as vital as a large grain farm.”