Don Virts is a new type of farmer.
His family has worked the land in Loudoun for generations, growing beef and produce. But things have changed now. The old ways aren’t sustainable for a small farm anymore, especially with Loudoun’s pricey land values.
In fact, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, farm households bringing in less than $350,000 annually make far more from off-farm income, although the USDA has very broad definitions for what makes a farm. Perhaps more telling, large-scale farms bringing in more than $1 million a year make up only 2.9 percent of farms, but 42 percent of farm production.
Don Virts saw that his family’s farming business wouldn’t survive without adapting, and in 2015 he started one of the county’s first commercial hydroponic greenhouses. There, he says he gets ten times the yield from his plants, year-round, using 50 percent less fertilizer, 50-80 percent less water, 99 percent less pesticide and fungicide, and zero herbicide. He says if he could afford to build a higher-tech greenhouse, he could do away with pesticide and fungicide altogether.
“I have no desire to be certified organic, because I fully believe that this is better than organic,” Virts said. “Anything grown organically outdoors, you throw a lot of stuff on it to control those problems. It might be approved for organic use, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe.” He said that every year, more and more chemical treatments are approved for organic use.
His greenhouse has a much higher up-front cost than a traditional patch of tomatoes, but after that, costs are lower and production is much higher, on a much smaller footprint.
And he says he can do it in Loudoun’s increasingly urbanized east.
“I had to ask myself, what does Loudoun offer that I can take advantage of?” Virts said. “And what it boils down to is, the same thing that’s putting me out of business is going to turn around to be the thing that’s going to keep me in business.”
By that he means Loudoun’s booming, highly educated, high-income population. He says he can’t keep up with the demand at his CEA Farms Market and Grill in Purcellville, and thinks he can set up another one in the east, bringing the produce closer to the consumer.
“What I’m trying to do is place these things all over the place, and then we have these islands of food production,” Virts said. Instead of the traditional model of produce packed and shipped in from far away, even other hemispheres, Virts wants people eating food picked that morning only a stone’s throw away. So far, it’s working at his greenhouse in Purcellville.
“I built this as a proof of concept, so people would come out there and see this, and see I don’t have a crazy vision,” Virts said. “It’s practical.” He said he knows a landowner in eastern Loudoun who is “very interested” providing him space for a growth facility but hasn’t signed a contract yet.
It’s not just an evolution of how food is grown, but an evolution of the business of growing food.
“This is something one small family farmer cannot do by himself,” Virts said. “I don’t have the resources. I don’t know the restaurant business, I don’t know the renewable energy business.”
The USDA calculated that in 2015, for every dollar spent on food, only 8.6 cents went to the farmer. For every dollar spent in a restaurant, only 3 cents went to the farmer.
Virts figures that by growing food close to where it’s eaten, using renewable energy, and cutting out middlemen, he can reclaim most of the money spent on food processing, packaging, transportation, wholesale and retail trading, and energy to bring food to the plate. Those account for 47.6 cents every dollar spent on food.
All that may add up to helping offset the high cost of land in eastern Loudoun. It would give consumers certainty about where their food came from.
His idea would also keep almost all the money spent on food in the local economy, and by cutting down on long-distance transportation and using renewable sources of energy, he can do his part to combat global warming. He has a farmer’s practical, pragmatic outlook on that topic—it has made it more difficult for him, with changing weather patterns and more intense storms.
“I’ve witnessed it on this farm,” Virts said. “When I was kid in high school, we used to take our pickup trucks on this pond [on his farm.] I haven’t been able to go ice skating there in years.”
Along with his other ideas—such as a restaurant with tiered seating overlooking his existing greenhouse—Virts is trying out all kinds of ways to make his family farm work.
“At some point, everybody has to wake up and think about this: Could you do your job, could anybody out there do their job, if they were hungry?” Virts said. “And that’s what it all boils down to, so somebody’s got to figure out that these five acres are worth more money in the long run with a self-sustaining business like this, producing something that everybody needs two or three times a day, than to build townhouses or apartments on it.”
Ultimately, if he can get food production up and running somewhere in eastern Loudoun, it will be another proof-of-concept for the future of small scale agriculture.
“As we get bigger and better, as we build our first one,” Virts said, “there’s going to be some lessons learned there.”