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Western Loudoun farmer plans greenhouse in the east

Donald Virts in his 5,000 square foot greenhouse in Hillsboro. Times-Mirror/Alex Erkiletian
When it comes to farming in Loudoun County, the Virts family has about as much experience in the trade as the U.S. has being a country.

Since the 1790s, the Virts family has lived and farmed in the Hillsboro area of the county -- producing some 12 generations of farmers and seeing the transformation of Loudoun from the Civil War era to the construction of Dulles Airport and the rapid development that has followed.

A lot has changed since then, says Donald Virts, who now runs the family farm business.

Over the years, Virts has watched numerous Loudoun farmers sell off their land to developers as they struggled to make a ends meet in a growing county. Virts has needed to figure out how to make a living as a modern day farmer in a time where land prices are high and competition with national and international farmers are steep.

But the 57-year-old farmer has no plans on leaving the county. In fact, he wants to expand. And, surprisingly, he plans to head east to do so.

By this time next year, Virts says he wants to open a fully operational hydroponic greenhouse in eastern Loudoun to provide the east with a safe and verifiable source of fresh produce.

WATCH


Virts thinks the demand for his greenhouse produce has the potential to be high in the highly-populated, well-educated east. He also thinks it can help other small family farmers who would have the opportunity to sell their goods in a farm market or a restaurant he envisions being attached to the greenhouse.

In 2015, Virts opened one of the county’s first commercial hydroponic greenhouses as a proof of concept model. This proved he could run a modern day farm facility and show it was a viable business.

Virts decided to start a greenhouse in the west after he sold his country store in Middleway, West Virginia in 2007.

Upon returning, he soon realized farming outdoors in Loudoun County was not sustainable. Above all, it is expensive.

Struggling to make ends meet, Virts remembered the greenhouse-like arrangement he had seen in the 1980s that captivated him on a ride during his visit to Disney’s Epcot theme park.

“It struck me,” he said. “Why am I outside fighting 30-degree weather, wind blowing, snowing, hail -- all the elements -- the bugs, the heat the cold. I can grow this stuff in here year-round in a nice environment and actually enjoy this.”

In Virts’ 5,000-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse, known as Controlled Environment Agriculture, or CEA, Farms, all year round you can find everything from tomatoes to onions, kale, lettuce, cucumbers and strawberries.

Virts’ greenhouse uses 99 percent less pesticides and herbicides on crops compared to what would be needed on a traditional farm, 50 percent less fertilizer and produces four times the amount of food using 30 percent less water.

The only challenge comes down to cost, Virs says.

Money

According to a study from the University of Georgia -- a college in a state with more than 11 million square feet in greenhouse production -- building a greenhouse can cost anywhere from $1 per square foot to as high as $7.25 per square foot depending on the material used for the facility.

Those construction figures do not include costs associated with heating, cooling and benches, which the study notes can triple the basic cost of the greenhouse.

Although Virts would not disclose how much he spent to build his greenhouse, he said the endeavor “took every penny that [he] had … and then some.”

Once his greenhouse was operational and the equipment in place, Virts said operations costs have been relatively low.

For instance, Virts relies on two part-time employees who work 30 hours per week in the greenhouse. This is a contrast to when he, his father, brother and uncle once farmed about 7,000 acres with the help of seasonal equipment that cost as high as $300,000 for one device.

A glimpse inside Donald Virts' 5,000 square foot greenhouse in Hillsboro.Times-Mirror/Alex Erkiletian


In a controlled environment like a greenhouse, according to Virginia Tech’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent James Hilleary, a hydroponics farmer needs to be able to factor in costs that come with controlling the atmosphere in order to be successful.

“Someone who’s thinking about hydroponics as a business has got to be able to capture those costs and factor that into their enterprise plan to be able to show that the revenue generated by the sale of their product will cover that and still provide a profit,” Hilleary said.

The high cost of land is another issue, one that has been a deterrent for many farmers in Loudoun County.

According the the Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Census of Agriculture study, Loudoun’s nearly 1,400 farms have declined by about 2 percent since 2007.

A 10- to roughly 30-acre lot in western Loudoun can cost anywhere from $175,000 to $10 million. In the east, less than an acre of empty land will cost you anywhere from $200,000 to $300,000. A prime 10-acre lot in Ashburn could cost $3 million or more.

The Department of Economic Development’s Agricultural Development Officer Kellie Hinkle said the county’s focus has primarily been on agricultural production in western Loudoun to serve population centers in the eastern part of the county and the greater Washington, D.C. region.

Hinkle said although greenhouses and seasonal extension agriculture are areas her department supports, it’s a tough sell in a high-cost area.

“Land is already expensive in western Loudoun. To put [agricultural] production where the margins are already thin on even more expensive land … I think that would be a very difficult sell for our office to make,” Hinkle said.

Support in the east

So far, Virts has garnered some support in the east.

In places like Sterling, the community has shown an interest in community gardening.

Last year, Sterling Supervisor Koran Saines (D) held a community garden interest meeting, which he said he was surprised by the large turnout and interest. Saines and his staff have since been scouting locations where the community can eventually build a local garden.

When asked about the prospect of bringing a greenhouse to Sterling, Saines said “all options are on the table,” adding that he plans to soon visit Virts’ farm to see how they can work together.

Virts said he would like the county to do more to help local farmers because their work involves something few businesses can provide -- preserving open space and creating new jobs.

“What costs the county more? Would it cost the county more to provide grants or low-interest loans or even outright fund a project like this? Or pay for the services they’d have to pay for over the next 10, 20, 50, 100 years if we decide to develop this land. That’s an obvious answer,” Virts said.

Comments


Great tomatoes and there is a big difference on the plus side in the taste of the yummy beef, Go there and buy!


I thought it was funny when it states ‘he has watched numerous farmers’ sell off land. So has he.not all of it. but still, the family farm HAS shrunk a bit. ANYWAY Kudos to Don for thinking outside the box on farming!!

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