Food of the Future

Ag Exporter of the Year illustrates state’s promising dry bean industry

With the International Year of Pulses declared for 2016, the talk about beans has become more than a dinner table affair. While all this attention has dry bean industries around the globe looking to raise the bar, high-quality beans are simply the standard in Michigan.

“I attribute that to our second-, third- and fourth-generation growers, our climate, and our astute processors,” says Joe Cramer, executive director of the Michigan Bean Commission. “I think we’re also logistically well positioned to take care of our customers. Presently, our biggest export partner is Mexico and because of our strong, long-term relationships there, black beans have risen to the No. 1 bean.”

Additional key markets include the United Kingdom for navy beans, Italy for navy beans and cranberry beans, and small red (chili) beans to the Caribbean. Not to mention pinto beans are the No. 1 bean consumed across the U.S., making the state’s dry bean exports an important contributor to economic growth.

“We export 35 to 40 percent of what we produce annually, so without export markets, we’d be floating in beans,” Cramer says.

Though export growth for the packaged and canned bean markets has matured, the future remains bright as innovative uses for bean protein hit grocery shelves.

Used as a compliment to traditional flour, bean protein increases nutritional value and is poised to change the look of energy bars, breakfast cereal, chips and even ice cream.

“If you look at the challenge of producing enough protein to feed the world, beans are perfect,” Cramer says. “They’re healthy, very nutrient dense and sustainable. They’re the food of the future.”


Feeding the world one bean at a time, Star of the West Milling Co. started exporting in the early 1970s. Today, Star of the West sells edible soybeans, dry edible bean products and flour across four continents, reaching Canada, Guatemala, Jamaica, Japan, Malta, Mexico and South Korea, and most recently expanding to Columbia, El Salvador, Italy, Poland, South Africa and Spain.

With a mission to meet and exceed the expectations of customers, the company experienced 27 percent growth in export sales from 2013 through 2014. Star of the West won the Ag Exporter of the Year award in 2015 for its achievements.

“Because of the increase in exports, it’s created an additional three full-time positions,” says Robert Chandonnet, vice president of edible bean sales at Star of the West and marketing director at Bayside Best Beans.

Job growth created from increased exports is just one criteria reviewed for award consideration. Additionally, export growth, economic impact for the state’s agriculture industry and the company’s “export culture” – whether exports are part of company philosophy and structure – are important.

“With our previous winners, we’ve had a lot of diversity,” says Jamie Zmitko-Somers, manager of MDARD’s International Marketing Program, which assists food and agricultural companies with a suite of services including export assistance. “It’s one of the great stories of the award and the agricultural industry as a whole in Michigan – a variety of products that showcase all Michigan offers to the world.”

For Star of the West, the award solidifies the company’s commitment to export excellence through effective strategies from establishing long-term relationships to studying market trends and analyzing global production.

“This honor would not be possible without the support of MDARD,” Chandonnet says. “We appreciate the strong relationship and trust we’ve established with MDARD over the years.”

Looking toward the future, Star of the West plans to continue its outreach to new trading partners. One prospect on the radar is Cuba, which prompted Chandonnet to visit the country in the spring of 2015 to investigate market opportunities in the agriculture sector and make sure local farmers would be well represented.

It’s clear that, like all of Michigan’s dry bean industry, Star of the West is destined for great heights.

This article was published in Michigan Agriculture magazine | 2016 (PDF)>>

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Farming Responsibly

Farmers’ conservation practices protect Michigan’s resources

The true value of clean freshwater is crystal clear, and Michigan farmers and producers are taking huge strides in protecting, and even healing, this precious resource.

Located in Monroe County, along the Stony Creek and River Raisin watershed in the Western Lake Erie Basin, the six-generations strong Darling Farms operation holds conservation at its roots. The farm, like many others in the state, is engaged in conservation practices protecting water, including Lake Erie, and other natural resources.

“It’s good for the environment, it’s good for the farm and it’s good for the community,” says Doug Darling, who is a partner at the farm with his father.


Darling Farms is verified through the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program (MAEAP), which is a voluntary, innovative and proactive program helping farms of all sizes prevent or minimize agricultural pollution risks.

The program, offered through the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, is one of the most proactive ways for the state’s farmers to make such efforts, MAEAP Manager Joe Kelpinski says.

“We know a farm that is MAEAP-verified is using the best management practices currently available in agriculture to protect the environment,” he says.

This includes help with identifying soil erosion, creating sensitive area maps and using tools that reduce runoff. As no two farms are identical, MAEAP enables farmers to choose the conservation methods that work best for their operations.

The program uses four verification systems: farmstead, cropping, livestock, and the newly added forest, wetlands and habitats.

“We’ve seen a substantial number of farmers getting involved. They understand the value and need for it,” Kelpinski says.


Darling Farms is verified in two of MAEAP’s verification systems, farmstead and cropping, which means the farm has implemented environmentally sound practices. The systems help the Darlings work to protect groundwater and surface water and prevent water resource contamination, among other efforts.

The farm uses filter strips, which are planted between a farm and surface water, such as lakes and rivers, to provide a buffer and protect water and soil quality.

“We have 46 acres of filter strips throughout our operation,” says Darling, who has found that “filter strips are probably the easiest way to impact runoff.”

The strips trap and filter runoff, preventing possible pollutants, such as sediment, from reaching the surface water. Filter strips are both practical and environmentally friendly.

“This is probably the easiest way to make an impact, especially if the land has any topography issues,” Darling says. “If you’ve installed the filter strips properly, you don’t have to do much to keep them maintained. It requires the least amount of management for how much impact it has.”

Though more costly, tile gates and other water flow management devices can also be strategically positioned to prevent loss of soil nutrients.

For over 20 years, Darling Farms has predominately followed a no-till policy and plants cover crops to help instill nutrients, add organic matter and prevent soil erosion.

Additionally, regular soil testing and proper nutrient management reduces excess phosphorous runoff while making farming more profitable. MAEAP-verified operations perform soil testing at a minimum of every three years, Darling says.

The farm also helps safeguard the environment by mainly using liquid fertilizer, not using fertilizer spreaders and also by side-dressing crops.

Darling Farms has not only pursued MAEAP verification, but also the Conservation Security Program and Conservation Reserve Program, which is administered by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.


Kelpinski says more than 3,000 farms are verified through MAEAP as of November 2015. Additionally, at least 10,000 Michigan farms have started the verification process.

Farmers understand the need to improve, protect and heal water resources like Lake Erie , which has suffered from algal infestation, and its surrounding watersheds.

Local farmers and research communities are focused on being part of the solution and have already made significant strides through proven conservation practices.

U.S. Geological Survey data released in September 2015 indicated algal bloom-fueling phosphorus dropped 49 percent in the River Raisin since 2008, which in turn reduces the amount flowing into the Western Lake Erie Basin.

Kelpinski believes that the “lake will heal itself” as more farms like Darling Farms implement these best management practices.

“I’m very positive about that,” he says.

This article was published in Michigan Agriculture magazine | 2016 (PDF) >>

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Poultry Pride

Technology advancements keep industry on the cutting edge

With 19 poultry processing plants producing 21 million chickens per week, Alabama ranks second in total production in the U.S., and according to a recent study by the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, the state’s poultry industry has a $15.1 billion impact on the state’s economy – making up 65 percent of agricultural sales and employing 86,000 workers.

Ray Hilburn, associate director at the Alabama Poultry and Egg Association, says the state’s poultry industry continues to expand due to the increased demand for chicken and poultry products.

“Chicken and chicken products can be economically obtained and be of nutritional value for all three meals of the day,” Hilburn says. “The success of the poultry industry can be attributed to the advancement of genetics, technology, and the dedication of its employees and producers. The industry continues to be an asset to the lending agencies that are involved in the financial aspect of the industry and producer investments.”

Guy Hall, poultry division director at Alabama Farmers Federation, says Alabama’s poultry success is thanks to technological advancements that keep the industry one step ahead.

“Alabama’s poultry industry is successful because everyone works together for the betterment of the industry and understands the importance of it to the state’s economy,” he says. “Farmers are willing to invest in poultry housing, land and equipment to take care of their chickens. Poultry companies are willing to invest in infrastructure, such as processing hatcheries and feed mills.”

Keystone Foods, a global food services company with its USA Proteins headquarters in Huntsville, illustrates such commitment with a strong history of innovation from food cryogenics to the introduction of the chicken nugget. By using real-time data, Keystone has stayed competitive by delivering high-quality protein solutions locally, nationally and abroad.

Alabama also has forward-thinking universities and state agencies providing education to farmers on everything from environmental stewardship to bird health.

Ken Macklin, Auburn University Extension specialist and professor, has seen a reduction in bacterial and parasitic infections thanks to improved ventilation within poultry houses. Specifically, attic vents help keep litter dry. And as a result, respiratory-type diseases have also decreased.

“From the farmers’ standpoint, technology improves their bottom line because you get a more uniform bird that grows faster under less environmental stress,” he says. “Birds are happy and can grow without expending extra energy.”

Further, research on optimizing nutrition and preventing disease is revolutionizing the industry. Growing in popularity, antibiotic- free programs, which rely on non-antibiotic therapeutics like probiotics, encourage birds to fight off sub-clinical infections and improve their immune systems.


Seasoned poultry farmers can attest to the sweeping improvements in poultry houses, especially compared to two decades ago when growers practically lived in the houses.

Today, advanced computerized systems control the entire environment of the house, from automated feed and water to temperature, ensuring optimal comfort. Another important safeguard is the computer’s ability to notify farmers by phone if the temperature, water or power levels fall outside operating parameters.

Additionally, there have been significant improvements in brooders – heaters – which now use infrared heating to warm the ground instead of the air. This switch also impacts output costs, like natural gas and propane.

As for lighting, incandescent bulbs are no longer the norm, says Heath Wesley, Alabama Extension agent and second-generation poultry farmer.

“My poultry houses have LED light bulbs and light dimmers to help with energy efficiency,” he says.

Wesley installed high-tech poultry houses with all of the mentioned innovations. He also uses data management tools that compare past activities, reducing guesswork for any adjustments. Raising almost 1 million birds annually, Wesley finds the technology helps optimize weight gains, feed conversion and livability, thus improving performance.

Hall says, “It’s critical to have Alabama farmers willing to use these new technologies on their farms. That’s what makes them competitive and efficient at producing a high-quality, healthy protein source for consumers.”

Overall, it’s an industry that gives Alabama something to crow about.

This article was published in Alabama Agriculture magazine | 2016 (PDF)>>

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Made Better in Montana

Montana’s Food and Agriculture Development Center Network leads by example

Every community desires growth, jobs and innovation, but in the Big Sky State, these goals are made a reality through the Montana Food and Agricultural Development Network.

This instrumental network helps Montanans grow their agricultural and food businesses by sharing resources through its four nonprofit centers: Bear Paw Development Corporation based in Havre; Beartooth RC&D in Joliet; Headwaters RC&D located in Butte; and Mission Mountain Food Enterprise Center (MMFEC) in Ronan. Each center boasts different specialties, ranging from in-house food processing and commercial kitchens to microloan funds, business development, and even conservation and food safety practices.

Through the Food and Agriculture Development Center Network, local products labeled with the Montana Department of Commerce’s programs Made in Montana, Grown in Montana and Native American Made in Montana are made possible.


Uncle Bill’s Sausage was a small-scale company selling retail through its stores. The problem: limited market entry.

“We helped him move to our USDA-inspected facility and expand to four new markets,” says Center Director Jan Tusick, Food and Ag Development Center at MMFEC. This includes grocery stores, restaurants and farmers markets.

Mustard Seed Sauce and Dressing Company needed a facility that could meet its growing demands of production. “We helped them research potential equipment that could bring more efficiency to their production. We also have the equipment needed to do fullscale processing. Now they are distributing regionally,” Tusick says.

Needing assistance with co-packing, Western Montana Growers Cooperative turned to MMFEC for chopping, blanching and other preparations of produce from local growers, which is then marketed to institutions like local schools and hospitals.

These are just a few examples of some 30 local businesses being helped on a monthly basis through the resources at MMFEC. It’s also the perfect place for any meat producer or processer with a USDA-approved “meat room” or for organic growers to meet certification requirements.

Over at Headwaters RC&D, the center similarly assists about 25 businesses during busy seasons, which includes a number of start-up microbreweries.

“Philipsburg Brewing Company became popular so fast that they decided to start canning and we worked with them to get their canning line. Now, you can buy their beer in aluminum bottles; it’s the only brewery doing so in the state,” says Center Director Joe Willauer, Food and Ag Development Center at Headwaters. Not to mention, the bottling line project created at least five new jobs.

Headwaters also houses one of the Montana Department of Commerce’s Small Business Development Centers focused on financials, which can help business owners avoid pitfalls and challenges, especially during startup.

At all four centers, education and training on Good Agricultural Practices, Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points and the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) are a priority. People can receive hands-on food safety training – an opportunity not presently available elsewhere in the state.

“FSMA is going to drastically increase regulations and this is a proactive measure, so we can stay competitive on a national level,” Willauer says.

Tusick adds, “We are a model nationally. The food industry is one of the most optimistic growth industries in Montana and we are well positioned to help food businesses develop through this network.”


Nothing is possible without funding, and while most ag businesses start with a Growth Through Agriculture Grant, the Montana Department of Commerce fills in where others can’t, such as with the Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund program.

“The Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund program is able to assist ag-related businesses with grants for planning and job creation projects, such as the department’s awards to the Flathead County Economic Development Authority for Glacier Hops to purchase equipment, and Beartooth RC&D for assistance to One Montana for a prospectus,” says Sean Becker, Division Administrator of the Montana Department of Commerce.

The Community Development Block Grant – Economic Development Program is also funding similar projects.

“If a business is growing, adding jobs or doing research to see how they can attract or retain an investment, we would love to be at the table.”

This article was published in Grown In Montana magazine | 2016 (PDF)>>

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Take the Pulse Challenge

International Year of Pulses to improve nutrition, health, sustainability

An agricultural rags-to-riches story, pulse crops are no longer an obscure specialty crop. Instead, they are gaining popularity, market potential and profitability as production rises in Montana and across the U.S.

Praised as nutritional powerhouses packed with protein, fiber, antioxidants, calcium and iron, pulses are the dried edible seeds of legumes and include all beans, peas and lentils. With 2016 declared the International Year of Pulses by the United Nations, consumers are seeing a trendy new “pulse” hitting dinner tables – and it’s coming from Montana’s farmlands.


As the No. 1 producer of pulses in the U.S., Montana predominately grows yellow and green peas, green and red lentils, garbanzo beans (or chickpeas), and a variety of dried beans.

“In 2014, we had over 700,000 acres in pulses, according to the USDA,” says Deputy Director Kim Falcon of the Montana Department of Agriculture (MDA). “The next year, you could easily add another 15 percent on top of that. For 2016, we anticipate there will be an even higher increase.”

While domestic markets have room to grow, Falcon sees international markets developing exponentially, specifically in India, Pakistan, Indonesia, South China and Mexico.

At Columbia Grain, a world-leading grain exporter operating five processing facilities for peas and lentils in Montana, Senior Vice President Jeff VanPevenage says, “We are currently exporting into Europe, Africa, South America and Asia, but we’re going to need more production. We are building a reputation for quality and see more buyers turning to the U.S. for that. And although I say the U.S., a lot of it is found in Montana.”

Traditionally, Montana exports the majority of its pulse crops internationally. However, thanks to the huge growth in U.S. hummus consumption in the last five years, Columbia Grain has seen chickpea exports drop from 70 percent of U.S. production to about 30 percent, while increasing production at the same time. Lentils are also in high demand, driving strong prices domestically.

“The fact that we’ve had support and backing by the Montana Department of Agriculture has been very helpful to getting more acres out of the ground,” VanPevenage says. “I’m really excited about the International Year of Pulses. I can already feel and see it driving demand.”

Other key companies involved in Montana’s pulse industry include processors like AGT Foods, Hinrichs Trading Company and New Century Ag. All are helping farmers access viable markets around the world.


It’s no secret these super crops possess countless health advantages, especially for those with diabetes or struggling with weight loss. However, they’re also gluten-free, non-allergenic and non-GMO, making pulses a perfect fit for health-conscious consumers.

To help incorporate pulse crops into diets in 2016, the U.S. Dry Pea and Lentil Council has chefs creating menus featuring this perfect plant protein source for individuals and institutions like schools and hospitals. For example, pasta can be made with pulse flour, and whipped cream can be made with white beans.

Consumers are already seeing more snacks, like bean and lentil chips, stocked on grocery store shelves. By substituting pea flour for traditional flour, even cookies and brownies can be healthier, and delicious. Another advantage of pulse crops are the agronomic benefits, says Kim Murray, third-generation farmer and chair of the Montana Pulse Advisory Committee.

“We were looking for something that would work in our climate and help us eliminate fallow or uncultivated land. By putting pulses in rotation, we are getting production on every acre. Land values have gone up, while erosion from wind and water have dropped dramatically.”

Looking toward the future, Murray sees Montana’s pulse boom as an opportunity to feed a growing world population with an inexpensive, nutritious and easily transported protein. He encourages consumers to eat at least 1.5 cups of pulse crops each week.

“I invite people to take the pulse challenge,” he says. Take the the Pulse Pledge at

This article was published in Grown In Montana magazine | 2016 (PDF)>>

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The Road Ahead

Ag Tag funds drive growth, progress in ag youth organizations

Even if you’re not driving down a country road in Tennessee, there are plenty of red barns to admire. Since 1996, the “Ag Tag” license plate, which features a red barn, has illustrated support for local agriculture, and sales from this farm-themed plate go to the state’s Agricultural Development Fund, administered by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.

Thanks to Ag Tags, a quarter of a million dollars is given back annually to the agriculture community in the form of grants to agricultural youth organizations and a variety of agricultural projects and programs across the state.

In 2003, Ag Tags (and its resulting Ag Development Fund) reached its first milestone granting more than $1 million to Tennessee’s ag community since the tag’s inception. By 2009, the $2 million mark was hit and now, 2016 marks the 20th anniversary celebration of the popular red barn tag.

One reason the Ag Tag program has been so successful is that it’s the only tag with a fund committed to supporting organizations other than itself, focusing funds outwards toward the agriculture community. For example, Ag Tag sales provide a combined $165,000 annually to Tennessee’s 4-H, FFA and Agriculture in the Classroom (AITC) programs.


“The Ag Tag fund has helped us further establish endowments that help support 4-H county programs, like providing more scholarships,” says Justin Crowe, extension specialist with Tennessee 4-H Youth Development.

Additionally, events like livestock expositions, 4-H Roundup and 4-H Congress, where students visit legislators in Nashville and learn about state government, have all benefited from increased funding.

Another area expanding because of Ag Tags is volunteer development.

“We could not have a strong program in Tennessee without the support of all our volunteers, who are out every day meeting 4-H clubs at the schools and training judging teams,” Crowe says. As of 2015, 4-H has received more than $750,000 since Ag Tags hit the roads.

“These funds have helped bring competitions, activities, events and teams to a level that we can really be proud of, and we know it wouldn’t be at that level without the support of Tennessee’s Department of Agriculture and Ag Tags,” Crowe says.

Buying Ag Tags also supports Tennessee’s FFA, which has 14,084 members, 322 advisors and 216 chapters. Allie Ellis, career and technical education specialist for FFA, sees numerous benefits.

“Ag Tag funds help sponsor state-winning Career Development Events (CDE) teams and individuals, Tennessee’s FFA breakfast at National Convention, FFA forestry camp, Blast-Off state officer training, the National Leadership Conference for State Officers, regional officer leadership training, and the state FFA degree pins and ribbons,” she says.

These additional resources make a positive difference in students’ education. Similarly, Ag in the Classroom, which provides professional development for the state’s classroom teachers, spends Ag Tag funds in support of summer workshops at 10 locations statewide.

“With the support of Ag Tags, AITC trained more than 1,400 teachers in 2014. That’s a 418 percent increase over the 270 trained in 1997 before Ag Tag funding,” says Dan Strasser, Tennessee Farm Bureau, special programs director.


According to the USDA, the U.S. produces only one qualified candidate for every two jobs in agriculture that require a college degree.

“4-H, FFA and AITC make students aware of the broad scope of careers available in agriculture. This knowledge increases the odds that some students will pursue a career in agriculture through postsecondary education,” ultimately leading to an agriculturally literate population, Strasser says.

Crowe agrees. “We feel strongly that all of our young people are advocates for agriculture and are shaping the industry’s future. The training they’ve received will help them tremendously now and down the road.”

As before, community support is vital to the Ag Tag program’s success and ability to advance local agriculture.

This article was published in Tennesse Ag Insider magazine | 2016 (PDF) >>

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Improving Agricultural Literacy: The GMO Debate

Can you identify GMO fact from myth?

Agriculture affects each of our lives so profoundly, it’s easy to overlook its importance. Take for example, the last time you ate fresh corn – do you remember how easy it was to peel, that it cooked in minutes or was sweet and juicy?

The evolution of corn (maize) has come a long way since 7000 B.C. when a distant relative of today’s modern plant was only found in Central America, peeled by hammering and contained only five to 10 very hard kernels per ear. Thanks to years of genetic enhancements, this veggie is an appetizing, worldwide favorite with 200 varieties available in five colors and grown commercially in more than 69 countries.

Through selective breeding, countless fruits, vegetables and other crops have been radically improved since the onset of domestic agriculture 10,000 years ago. Here’s a closer look at the vital role of genetics in agriculture today.


“All agricultural plants and animals through domestication have been genetically modified,” says Dr. Terry Sharrer, former curator of agriculture, Smithsonian Museum of American History. “With traditional breeding, you amplify the expression of all genes, however you also get heightened examples of undesirable characteristics.”

To rectify this, scientists turned to DNA technology, or genetic engineering, in the 1980s. This laboratory process enhanced traditional breeding methods by extracting and inserting a specific, single gene that carries the desired characteristic. Any offspring produced through this process is called a GMO.

The terms GMO and genetic modification (GM) are frequently confused, however. Sharrer clarifies that “genetic modification continues to happen naturally today because plants and animals experience predation. They change the same ways humans do to adapt. It’s evolution.”


Myth. With the 30th anniversary of GM technology and 2,000-plus studies conducted, research has concluded that GMO foods are as safe as conventional or organic foods. Furthermore, research has uncovered numerous benefits of GMO crops including targeted insect, disease and weed resistance, which decreases the need for pesticides and tilling, causing less stress on the environment.

“There’s nothing inheritably unsafe about GMOs compared to anything else,” says Sharrer, especially considering that chemicals naturally exist in plants and animals. Celery and lima beans, for example, contain natural toxins that could be harmful in high doses, even if they’re labeled non-GMO or organic.


Fact. “Today’s American farmer feeds about 155 people around the world. As impressive as that is, it is not enough to meet the challenges of a world population headed to 9 billion by 2050,” says Commissioner Sandra J. Adams of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS). Add in the fact that less than two percent of the American population is engaged in production agriculture, and the future depends on farmers continuing to use innovation and technology to increase productivity.

Growing two ears of corn where there once was one, GMOs may well hold the key to increasing food productivity. However, consumers’ purchasing decisions will ultimately decide what production methods will be accepted.


Myth. “Almost 90 percent of our farms are family-owned and operated, although many family farms are incorporated as a business model,” Adams says. “We need to get the word out on America’s agriculture industry and that we have the safest food supply in the world.”

Undoubtedly, the loss of personal connection with the people who know agriculture best – our farmers – has fueled confusion surrounding modern agricultural practices. While consumers know that staple crops like corn play a significant role providing alternative energy or feeding livestock and people, many aren’t aware that without today’s genetic improvements, food would be more expensive, consume more resources such as land and water and require more inputs to produce.

“Improving agriculture literacy and policy starts (and ends) with the consumer,” Sharrer says. The family farm may be modernized, but it still strives for buyer satisfaction, just as it has since the very beginning.

This article was published in Virginia Agriculture magazine | 2016 (PDF) >>

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A Fish On Every Dish

Why Virgnia’s thriving seafood industry will feed the growing population

Aquaculture has seen tremendous growth in the U.S., expanding about 14-fold since 1980. As the population grows, along with seafood’s healthy reputation, aquaculture is estimated to increase in demand by 35 percent or more in the next 20 years. There’s no doubt the “Blue Revolution” is underway, and with fish farming on the rise in Virginia, the industry is set for promising years ahead.


“In Virginia, we’ve had some outstanding aquaculture stories,” says Bill Martin, president of Blue Ridge Aquaculture. His company sells 12,000 pounds of live tilapia daily to customers located from Toronto to Washington, D.C.

“We’ve shown that you can do intensive recirculating aquaculture and make a profit.”

Another success story is Virginia Cobia Farms LLC, which produces the only cobia fish in the world rated as “Best Choice” Sustainable Cobia by the Monterey Bay’s Seafood Watch program. This inland fish farm has been able to recycle fish waste into biogas energy that helps power their facility.

Over the years, Martin has watched the industry naturally progress from wild-caught to
indoor farm production, the latter providing a more controlled environment for raising high-quality, protein-rich fish.

“We raise fish in the best conditions. We treat the animal well in a stress-free environment with the best diet that is known for tilapia. We do this because we want a healthy, strong fish and that equates to good taste.”

However, Martin stresses there are still a lot of hurdles. “We are competing with imports
that aren’t under the same regulations that fish farmers in the U.S. face,” he says.

As many consumers make purchasing decisions based on price, cheaper imported seafood
is stocking grocery stores, but at a cost.

“We get what we pay for, which in many cases is a substandard fish. We need to educate the public that seafood grown domestically is better for them. It doesn’t have harmful substances in it that may be present in substandard fish.”

Additionally, aquaculture requires capital investment and further research to advance the
industry. Martin has found this goes hand-in-hand with encouraging younger generations
to enter the industry and, ultimately, building a base of people who understand the commitment behind great seafood.


In 2014, Virginia’s shellfish farmers sold $55.9 million in oysters and clams, an increase of 14 percent total revenue for clam growers and 33 percent for oyster growers, according to the annual Virginia Shellfish Aquaculture – Situation and Outlook Report (March 2015). Karen Hudson, commercial shellfish aquaculture extension specialist at Virginia Institute of Marine Science, says this growth can be attributed to a variety of factors, including lack of availability in other clam-producing states and the local food movement.

“The oyster industry is a younger industry and experiencing unbridled growth lately,” Hudson says. “For the last several decades, the cultured hard clams have been the dominant product in the market.” Then in 2008-09, there was a boost in oyster production and each year since has had an increase in sales and people planting oysters, taking after the clam model.

“We estimate over $100 million in economic impact to Virginia from farmed shellfish. That equates to nearly 1,000 jobs, many in rural communities.”

In addition, shellfish provide an ecological service by filtering the nutrient rich waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

“Virginia will remain the nation’s leader in hard clam production and the shellfish culture industry will continue to provide a safe and high-quality product,” Hudson says, attributing this success to a proactive industry and business-friendly regulatory structure.

Of course, Virginia’s fish farmers have one final advantage driving future success – the perfect geographic location – a highly populated corridor of the world, near coastal habitats and people who love seafood.

This article was published in Virginia Agriculture magazine | 2016 (PDF) >>

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Advancing Animal Agriculture

Quality animal care and young farmers are critical to booming sector

A leading state in animal agriculture, North Carolina has transitioned in recent decades from a crop farm state to a livestock farm state with pork and poultry leading in production value. Pork accounts for more than $2.5 billion in farm income in the state, while the poultry industry accounts for an estimated $5.1 billion.

Behind those impressive numbers are North Carolina’s farmers and the skilled care they provide for the animals they raise to feed their families and families across the world.


James Lamb, a third-generation Sampson County hog farmer, took over the family farm as a teenager when his father passed away.

“I’ve probably been driving a tractor since I was 7 years old,” says Lamb, whose love of the farm and raising pigs eventually led him to study agricultural engineering at North Carolina State University (NCSU) and graduate in 1996 with five job offers. He decided to remain on the family farm and pursue hog farming large scale with Prestage Farms, which produces over 1.3 billion pounds of pork and turkey annually through its 450-plus farm families.

More than 15 years later, Lamb is still working as a nursery grower, receiving about 3,040 pigs for each eight-week term. In a year, he cares for around 20,000 pigs.

“When caring for the pigs, you want them to be as comfortable as possible,” he says. “A comfortable animal is healthier, so if they feel stressed, I’m stressed.”

In order to provide the best care possible, Lamb is Pork Quality Assurance (PQA) certified and utilizes modern technology.

“I’m a big advocate of technology – anything that makes the pigs healthier, I’m for it. But no matter the technology you have, it’s always good to have your eyes on things.”

Also contributing to the farm’s success is Lamb’s family, including two daughters, who may one day inherit the farm.

“I always valued the lessons learned growing up on the farm. It’s hard work, but the ethics and morals help people throughout life, no matter where their paths lead.”


Brad West’s family has a long history of farming. A third-generation farmer and a graduate of NCSU, West has been raising turkeys for 16 years, most recently for Butterball.

“The challenge of taking a small bird, raising it to market age and seeing the finished product is what I like the most,” West says.

The West family owns three farming operations: a brooder farm with 55,000 turkeys, a natural ventilation farm with around 18,000 birds and a tunnel ventilation farm with 28,000 birds.

As the nation’s largest turkey producer, Butterball depends on family farmers. According to West, Butterball works closely with growers. The company understands that the taste consumers have grown to expect is achieved through every aspect of caring for the birds, from nutritious food to a clean, comfortable environment.

“Butterball also has great veterinarians, so they can diagnose and treat any problems that arise,” he says.

The rise of meat consumption around the world is good news not just for North Carolina’s pork and poultry industries, but also for the state’s beef producers. With approximately 19,000 beef cattle operations – located throughout the state’s 100 counties – the beef cattle herd is estimated at more than 360,000.

Meanwhile, an estimated 500 dairy farms with more than 45,000 cows contribute more than $165 million to the state’s economy.

This article was published in North Carolina Agriculture magazine | 2016 (PDF) >>

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An Eye on Efficiency

Mississippi farmers focus on energy use in their operations

On every farmer’s expense sheet, there’s an energy column, and no matter the energy source, the goal is the same: The better the energy-cost situation, the better the bottom line.

Luckily in the U.S., the agriculture sector is a technology leader and highly mechanized, which is largely due to the availability of economically efficient energy supplies and infrastructure to deliver it. Moreover, thanks to human innovation and energy abundance, U.S. farmers can stay globally competitive.

However, when compared to other states, Mississippi farmers have an even greater advantage when it comes to diesel, electricity and natural gas. For example, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Mississippi pays 8.60 cents/kwh for electricity, significantly below the U.S. average retail price of 9.84 cents (data for 2013).

“Mississippi is an energy-rich state. Most people don’t know this, but Mississippi has a greater volume of natural gas flowing into and out of the state than any other state,” says Patrick Sullivan, president of the Mississippi Energy Institute. “In fact, the U.S. has more natural gas infrastructure than any other country in the world.”

Abundant infrastructure, proximity to production and strong public policy are the reasons Mississippi pays less per unit of energy on average, Sullivan says. In addition, technology gives farmers more options for managing farms.

“The reality is not as much diesel is required to run a piece of equipment and farm compared to the past. Technology and conservation have aided in fuel efficiency,” he says. Sullivan explains that with the U.S. surge in natural gas production over the last five to 10 years, there have been numerous benefits to farmers including reduced costs due to domestic production of fertilizer, chemicals and farm equipment parts – not forgetting all the jobs associated with this.

“U.S. energy prices are currently as low, or lower, than almost any part of the world. The takeaway is that people should be aware of energy policy as a state and country, and we should have an energy policy aimed at increasing supply to encourage lower energy prices. That supports all the benefits to the U.S. economy, including the farm economy.”


There’s no underestimating the important role energy plays in agriculture, and this is especially true for Mississippi’s poultry industry, the largest sector of agriculture in the state contributing more than $3 billion to its economy each year.

“Energy is used from lighting to heating and cooling, to ventilation to electric motors running the feed,” says Michelle Mangold, a fourth-generation farmer who’s dedicated the past 19 years to raising poultry. Presently overseeing eight poultry houses in Brookhaven and raising 950,000-plus chicks annually, Mangold knows from experience that “loss of electricity to poultry farmers is a potential economic loss. Our houses rely heavily on electricity to ensure the chickens stay comfortable.”

One reason poultry farming is an energy-extensive operation is that house temperatures range anywhere from 65 to 91 degrees year round. Since fluctuating temperatures can regress growth, Mangold keeps backup diesel generators for emergency situations. “When we started in the business, electricity didn’t cost much because we didn’t have all the technology we do now, but it’s good because technology makes for a better and easier grow-out as the chickens are more comfortable.”

For example, upgrades like tunnel fans and cool cell pads have helped increase average chicken weight from 4.5 to 7 pounds, which result in more poultry product.

To keep energy costs low, Mangold regularly checks to ensure equipment is running properly. She also utilizes energy-efficient light bulbs, which cost more but last longer and generate more light. Similarly, farmers who are building new poultry houses statewide are opting for energy-efficient options from the start, like lower ceilings, which improve air flow and temperature control.

With eyes fixed on the bottom line, energy saved is money earned for poultry farmers like Mangold, and continued success in U.S. energy production will be critical to future prosperity in agriculture.

This article was published in Mississippi Agriculture magazine | 2016 (PDF) >>

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