The changing fortunes of farming, hydroponics & the Virginia Senate (Roanoke Business)

The September 2015 issue of Roanoke Business magazine features three of my stories:

The changing fortunes of farming, the cover feature, which examines southwest Virginia ag in 2015 through the five-year USDA Census of Agriculture and interviews with key players.

“About as high-tech as it gets”: Red Sun Farms may be agriculture’s future under glass, a sidebar that looks at the hydroponic tomato grower’s 18-acre — and growing — operation in Pulaski County.

Power in balance: The region’s races could determine which party controls the Virginia Senate, a round-up of issues and candidates in the three-way races in the 19th and 21st districts, which encompass most of the Roanoke and New River valleys.

This Democratic coal baron wants to be the next governor of West Virginia (Grist)

For a half-decade now, Republicans have slammed Democrats running for office in Appalachia for propagating a so-called regulatory “war on coal.”

They may find it considerably more challenging to make that argument stick against Jim Justice, owner of the largest privately held coal company east of the Mississippi River, who announced last month he’s running for the 2016 Democratic nomination for West Virginia governor. The only West Virginian in the Forbes 400, Justice is worth an estimated $1.69 billion.

Justice is not to be confused with another wealthy West Virginia coal baron, “Dark Lord of Coal Country” Don Blankenship, the former Massey CEO who will soon be tried on charges that he conspired to skirt safety regulations at Upper Big Branch mine, where a 2010 explosion killed 29 miners.

Justice too has a reputation for ignoring mine regulations, but he’s built up a positive reputation in the state in other arenas. His public images feel contradictory in a way that eludes easy caricature. (The Justice campaign did not respond to requests for an interview.)

In eastern West Virginia, Justice is beloved for buying the historic Greenbrier, a luxury resort that famously served as Congress’ personal fallout shelter, out of bankruptcy. He established a PGA event, the Greenbrier Classic (Tiger Woods is among the golfers competing this year), and built a $30 million training facility for the New Orleans Saints on the Greenbrier grounds. Justice invests lots of his time in youth sports; he’s been president of Beckley Little League since 1992 and has coached boys and girls basketball for 30 years, racking up 761 wins and 156 losses. He’s donated millions to charities such as the Boy Scouts of America, the Cleveland Clinic, and Marshall University.

At the same time, Justice’s coal companies, some inherited after his father’s death in 1993, have racked up millions in fines for labor, safety, and environmental violations. In November, NPR reported that Justice owed nearly $2 million in overdue fines.

Justice’s outsized profile means that announcement of his gubernatorial candidacy last month attracted notice from national press — more than might otherwise be expected for a first-time candidate.

Read more in my profile of Jim Justice at Grist.

Floyd County: a community of entrepreneurs that sticks together (Roanoke Business)

Scott Pierce worked for Sherwin-Williams in Greensboro for 15 years before he cashed in his 401(k) and in 2011 moved with his wife Cassie and their two children to Floyd County, Virginia.

Eight months later, Scott and Cassie Pierce started a business making kombucha, a fermented tea that’s become popular as a pick-me-up packed with probiotics. They brewed at a kitchen in Willis and distributed their kombucha through regional farmers’ markets and the Harvest Moon health food store and Good Food Good People, both independently owned Floyd businesses selling local products.

Today, Buffalo Mountain Kombucha sells its products in Roanoke and the New River Valley. Earlier this year, the Pierces raised a little more than $16,000 on Kickstarter, a crowd-funding website. They will use the money to more than double their production from about 130 gallons to about 300 gallons per week, and they’re negotiating with retailers in North Carolina and the Washington, D.C., region.

The secret to their success?

“Quite honestly, the Floyd community sticks together,” says Cassie Pierce. “We support each other and lift one another up. That made it so easy” when it came to the Kickstarter campaign.

Buffalo Mountain Kombucha is one of many small independent businesses based in Floyd. Of the 15,528 people who live in the county, according to the U.S. Census, about 1,200 are self-employed. That’s more than double the state rate, says Lydeana Martin, Floyd County’s community and economic development director.

That figure doesn’t include part-time enterprises, whether it’s trading products grown on a homestead, repairing musical instruments or providing childcare. Floyd County is chock full of farms, some of which sell commercially and others which operate solely within the region’s burgeoning barter system.

Read more in my Floyd community profile in the June issue of Roanoke Business.

Roanoke Valley, NRV & Southwest Virginia community profile (Virginia Business)

Big economic development deals announced over the last two years are coming to fruition in the Roanoke and New River valleys, even as other companies are shutting down and scaling back.

However, a series of economic development wins the last few years has dramatically reduced the region’s inventory of potential commerical sites. Industrial parks and prime commercial spaces have filled, leaving some companies bursting at the seams but unable to expand due to lack of capacity.

“The biggest problem is supply and demand,” says Dennis Cronk of commercial real estate group Poe & Cronk. “We have a very limited supply of industrial buildings and a limited supply of industrial land that is developable at a reasonable cost.”

You can read more in my 2014 community profile of the Southwest Virginia region online and in the November issue of Virginia Business.

New work for Blue Ridge Country: Agriculture’s Industrial Revolution began in the Shenandoah Valley

Compared to the monolithic corn and soybean fields of the Midwest, the rolling hills and valleys of western Virginia feel far removed from large-scale industrial agriculture.

But in the mid-19th century the region contributed heavily to feeding the rapidly growing United States of America, serving as the highest grain-producing region in one of the highest grain-producing states.

The Valley of Virginia also produced in that era a man who would forever leave a mark on American agriculture and business in general: Cyrus McCormick.

McCormick’s invention of the reaper changed food production around the world, and the business practices he and his brothers pioneered are standard today.

Read more about McCormick in the online teaser for my story at Blue Ridge Country. For the full story pick up the Sept./Oct. issue of Blue Ridge Country or read the digital edition here.