I grew up on Northbury Farm in New Kent County and though my grandparents rented out their fields to neighboring farmers, I've felt a life-long connection to agriculture. As a high school student I attended the first summer-term Governor's School for Agriculture hosted at Virginia Tech. Now that I have my own home, I keep chickens, dairy goats, and a small vegetable garden. The publications made available by the Cooperative Extension Offices have helped me make practical decisions about which varieties of table grapes to plant in my grape arbor and how to care for the fruit trees and bushes we've planted here.
Virginia agriculture producers play a vital role both in the economy of the Commonwealth and the health of one of our natural resource treasures, the Chesapeake Bay. Through the use of best management practices, farmers have modified their cultivation practices to reduce runoff into streams and larger tributaries and preserve soil structure while maintaining a high level of productivity. The recent case involving the EPA and cattle farmers shows that there's still room for improvement in terms of balancing water access needs and conservation.
Funding for agricultural research helps our land grant universities like Virginia Tech and Virginia State University test relevant methodologies to improve how Virginia farmers handle their day-to-day operations. I attended VSU's Small Farm and Berry Field Day (held at their Randolph Research Farm) and I got to see their trial crops, greenhouse projects, and aquaculture research in person.
Virginia's agriculture producers and researchers contribute not just to our economy, but also to our food security. The outbreak of avian influenza in the Midwest resulted in a sharp rise in egg prices and some businesses, including the Rita's Custard chain, had to change their recipes because the egg-derived ingredients became too expensive to be profitable. To me, this reiterates the importance of keeping our farming sector robust and decentralized so that our food supply does not grind to a halt.
I was very pleased to hear earlier this year that special permits were granted to allow the exploration of industrial hemp as an alternative crop for Virginia. This may prove an excellent option for current tobacco or cotton farmers. Industrial hemp has been hampered for decades due to unfair associations with varieties of cannabis grown for psychoactive properties. Industrial hemp has applications in textiles, animal feed, oils, and the paper-making industry. In Virginia, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services oversees the licensing process for institutions of higher education to conduct industrial hemp research.
Direct to consumer sales
According to the Virginia State Dairyman's Association statistics from 2012, the average dairy cow in Virginia produced 6.9 gallons of milk per day at a daily production value of $11.30. The overall margins in Virginia's agriculture are very small: for every $1 in price at retail, the farmer's share accounts for only 16 cents. National statistics paint a troubling picture: in just a 6-year period between 2000 and 2006, dairy farms of between 1 and 29 cows decreased by 31%, those with 30-49 cows decreased by 36%, those with 50-99 cows decreased by 29.2%, and those with 100-199 cows decreased by 24%. The average Virginia dairy cow herd had 141 head in 2012.
There are very few commercial milk processing centers in Virginia, which serves as a barrier to small-scale production. One local farm, Old Church Creamery in King William, has successfully managed its own bottling and I applaud them for that. The ability to sell one's product directly to the consumer yields the best return for the producer. That is why I would introduce an exemption to the existing VDACS regulation on dairies so that producers could sell raw milk on-farm directly to consumers up to a certain volume. This is similar to the slaughter exemption already in place for those processing 2,000 or fewer meat chickens (broilers) each year. This milk would be subject to a similar labeling requirement and the requirement would be applicable to all of the milk-producing animals raised in Virginia regardless of species.
Virginia milk is safe milk. Virginia is considered both Bovine Tuberculosis (Mycobacterium bovis) and Brucellosis free. These are two zoonotic diseases that can be transmitted through contact with infected animals (typically through slaughter) or, more rarely, consumption of milk from infected animals. Virginia has stringent import requirements to make sure its herds remain free of Bovine Tuberculosis and Brucellosis. It is important to note that Bovine TB and Human TB are caused by two different bacterium, Mycobacterium tuberculosis in the latter. Other infectious organisms, such as Salmonella, Campylobacter, and E. coli can be found in raw milk, but they are also found in other legally-sold products such as raw meats and eggs. Listeria can also be present in raw milk just as it can be found in fruits, vegetables, and even deli meats. Home pasteurization of milk prior to consumption is no more complicated than cooking any other unprocessed product. It only requires holding the milk at 165 degrees F for 15 seconds. This can be done on a stovetop or even in the microwave.
Are the risks worth the gains? I strongly believe that the minor health risks are worth the economic gains of permitting Virginia's dairymen and women to directly sell raw milk to consumers. With the ability to set their own prices, small-scale dairies can remain viable without having to rely upon value-added products (which incur greater labor costs) or to face the dilemma of "getting big or getting out."
"Biosolids," the PR term for "sludge," have been applied to Virginia fields for decades. This nutrient-rich slurry is the treated waste from municipal wastewater plants, portable toilets, and pumped septic tanks. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality controls the permitting process for land application of sludge, but this power was formerly held by the Virginia Department of Health. Sludge must meet certain requirements for pathogen load, attraction reduction so that birds, rodents, and insects are not drawn to it, and acceptable levels of fecal coliform bacteria. Based on those qualifications, it can be classified into two different tiers: Class A, which has no restrictions on human access to treated fields or Class B, which requires human and animal site access restrictions. Regular sludge is not without its problems (click the link to read a scholarly article on heavy metals, organic pollutants, and excess Phosphorus), but a new sludge has emerged that could threaten Virginia's ecosystems and drinking water.
Industrial sludge, PR term yet to be determined, is made from material more variable than treated human waste. It can contain slaughter waste, such as unusable carcass trimmings or offal bits, or industrial paper-making waste. It could include water used for carcass chilling once it has exceeded its cycling limit. Industrial paper-making requires extensive chemical use to chelate metals from the wood pulp, bleach paper, remove ink during recycling, and provide specific surface finishes.
I submitted a letter to the editor of the Mechanicsville Local regarding my stance on industrial sludge. I hope that upon reading it, you will arrive at the same conclusion I have: industrial sludge may have applications, but those applications do not include Virginia's farm fields.