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.

Railroad legacy fades (Virginia Business)

When news came in March that Norfolk Southern would close its Roanoke administrative offices, moving 426 jobs to Norfolk and Atlanta, many city residents feared for the city’s economic future.
After all, Norfolk and Western Railway’s decision to build in Roanoke in the 1880s kick-started the “Magic City’s” growth and long served as its leading industry. Yet, the railroad has waned in influence and employment for decades, shrinking a local workforce of more than 5,000 people at its height to 1,200 today. The closure of the administrative offices continues a process that began in 1982 when Norfolk Southern, formed in the merger of Norfolk and Western and Southern railways, moved its headquarters from Roanoke to Norfolk.

Other closures are testing the economic resilience of the Roanoke and New River valleys. Retailer HSN Inc. will close its Roanoke County fulfillment center next year, eliminating 350 jobs. Banking company BB&T Corp. closed its Roanoke call center, and wireless phone service nTelos shuttered its Botetourt County customer support center for a combined loss of nearly 200 jobs. A staff reduction at Allstate Insurance Co.’s Roanoke County customer support center cost another 185 jobs.

Despite the spate of job losses, however, optimism remains. The region no longer relies on one, two or even three industries. Indeed, Moody’s has ranked Roanoke and Richmond as the cities with the most diverse economies in Virginia — an attribute that helps cushion the blow.

Read more in my Roanoke/New River Valley community profile for Virginia Business magazine.

The fight against cancer, campus changes & more (Virginia Tech Magazine summer 2015)

Because cancer takes many forms, each unique to itself, Virginia Tech faculty, students, and alumni who fight the disease find themselves in a wide variety of roles.

In its summer 2015 edition, Virginia Tech Magazine showcases the university’s efforts to fight cancer. Whether through caregiving, research, or fundraising, Hokies infuse their work with the spirit of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) to battle cancer at all levels.

Read my story on Hokies fighting cancer here.

Navigating the Virginia Tech campus soon will be simpler, following construction projects at the north end of the Drillfield, at the Southgate Drive and U.S. Route 460 intersection, and in the northern section of campus near Prices Fork Road and West Campus Drive. Our maps will help bring you up to date and get you where you want to go.

Read my story on the physical changes coming to the Blacksburg campus here

The full issue is available online here.

Going solar: the Solarize movement in Montgomery County (Roanoke Business)

On a recent sunny afternoon, gaggles of people gathered to listen as New River Valley elected officials and renewable energy advocates announced the launch of Solarize Montgomery. It’s an effort to get homeowners to purchase solar panels that expands upon a Solarize Blacksburg effort in 2014.

That pilot “Solarize Blacksburg” program invited solar installers to bid on a group of installations to help lower costs, then offered financing options. Of the 468 people who responded, 92 were from outside Blacksburg, and thus the program’s boundaries.

Solarize Montgomery is targeted at those 92, along with others in Montgomery County interested in going solar. Sign-ups run through July 22.

After filling out an online form at, applicants receive a satellite assessment, basically meaning that installers look at the location and orientation of the site via Google Earth to determine if it might be a good fit. Next, installers visit the site for an in-person assessment. For many homes, it may make more sense to install basic energy conservation measures.

If the site visit shows the home would benefit from solar energy, however, installers submit a proposal and price estimate. If applicants choose to move forward, they’re eligible for a 30 percent federal tax credit and long-term financing assistance.

Of the 468 people who applied through Solarize Blacksburg, 168 followed through far enough to get an on-site assessment and proposal from an installer. Fifty-six homeowners actually pulled the trigger – a fraction of the initial response, but “a really high conversion rate for something this complex,” says Blacksburg Sustainability Manager Carol Davis.

Read more in my story on western Virginia’s Solarize movement in Roanoke Business magazine.

Urban vibe: 6 great Virginia mountain cities (Life Outside)

For Life Outside magazine, I profiled six Virginia mountain towns, with details on outdoor to-do’s, competitions, nightlife and cool overnights from rustic to ‘luxe.

Each city includes listings for a big outdoor lure, another outdoor lure, a competitive event this summer, recommendations for restaurants and overnight accomodations, and a bonus item.

Read my profiles in the summer 2015 issue of Life Outside.

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.

What do we do with all these dead coal-fired power plants? (Grist)

About 13 gigawatts worth of coal-fired power plants are closing this year to comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule.

From a national perspective, these plants represent a fairly small chunk of the nation’s overall electrical capacity. For the communities in which they’re located, however, their closures mean much more than just a smaller carbon footprint: The resulting loss of jobs and local tax revenue leaves an economic void as well. And then there’s the question of what to do with these plants, many of which sit on land that, if it can be properly cleaned up, could be valuable for redevelopment or recreation.

Consider American Electric Power’s (AEP) plant in Glen Lyn, Virginia, a tiny town once known as Hell’s Gate that sits near the West Virginia border. The 96-year-old plant is one of seven AEP plants to be shut down by May 31. (Another two plants will be converted to burn natural gas.) All told, AEP is retiring more than 6,000 megawatts (MW) of coal-fired generating capacity.

Only 31 people worked at the Glen Lyn plant, but then, the town has a population of just 115, according to the U.S. Census. The plant’s employees and retirees are an “integral part of the community,” says Giles County Economic Development Director Chris McKlarney. “You can never replace that.”

Read more in my story at Grist.

VT Mag’s spring 2015 issue looks at historic restaurants, metallurgy, more (Virginia Tech Magazine)

The spring 2015 issue of Virginia Tech Magazine has been posted online and mailed to alumni, friends and supporters of the university.

My cover story looks back to the historic restaurants that have become part of Virginia Tech lore, and on the science why we remember these nostalgic strongholds so fondly.

I also toured VT-FIRE, the university’s foundry, and provided a behind-the-scenes look at how decades-old class rings are melted down into Hokie Gold and incorporated into new rings for the alumni of tomorrow.

I considered Virginia Tech’s growing research funding, now at more than half a billion dollars, and where President Timothy D. Sands sees it going in the future.

Finally, I profiled Brent Burger, a business-minded alumni who learned a powerful lesson at Virginia Tech.

The online version of the spring 2015 issue can be found at the Virginia Tech Magazine website.

A to Z: What’s new for 2015 in western Virginia (LifeOutside)

Visitors long have flocked to western Virginia for its mountains and outdoor beauty, but in the last few years economic development advocates, government officials and entrepreneurs have increasingly realized the region’s potential as well.

Heading into 2015, look for more opportunities to get outside than ever before. That goes for mountain bikers (skip down to X, for Xtreme to learn about the Rattle’n’Run Trail at Carvin’s Cove), wanna-be lumberjacks (see L) and paddlers (check J to learn about the Upper James River Water Trail).

Read the rest of my story at LifeOutside magazine here.

Murder ballads & story songs with Anna & Elizabeth (Noisey)

A woman walks into the woods, gives birth to a couple of children and subsequently kills them. They appear as ghosts and condemn her to hell. This isn’t a black metal epic or Clive Barker movie, but “The Greenwood Sidey,” a nearly four-hundred-year-old song passed down through generations from the highlands of Scotland to the dark hollows of Appalachia. In this case, it’s illustrated with a hand-woven scroll moved slowly through a specially built cabinet, known as a “crankie,” that displays scenes from the song to its audience. This is the work of Anna Roberts-Gevalt and Elizabeth LaPrelle, a pair of 27-year-old women who perform these old songs and who released their self-titled second album on Tuesday.

Both sing and play an array of traditional instruments, but in recording and performance, LaPrelle, who grew up in Rural Retreat, Virginia, takes the lead in belting out the old songs, while Roberts-Gevalt, who grew up in Vermont and makes her home in Baltimore, shoulders the load when it comes to playing fiddle and other stringed instruments. The duo plays a variety of rollicking instrumentals and traditional tunes, but in live performances, it’s the storytelling ballads that are the show-stoppers, especially if it’s one of the eight songs with an accompanying crankie to illustrate the tale. The two also host the monthly Floyd Radio Show, now in its fourth season, which has featured the Black Twig Pickers and members of Old Crow Medicine Show among its guests, and they regularly schedule time to speak to elementary students between tour stops.

I interviewed Anna and Elizabeth for Noisey about the story behind “The Greenwood Sidey,” how crankies engage their audience, and exactly why these old, twisted songs have endured for so long.

Read the interview and stream “Greenwood Sidey” at Noisey.