In Southwest Virginia, farmers and brewers hope for a grain renaissance

ST. PAUL — On a peaceful Thursday afternoon in St. Paul, a town of about 850 that sits on the banking companies of the Clinch River straddling Intelligent and Russell counties, Greg Bailey was filling a growler of Scotch ale. 

Beer has a colorful historical past in these components. When it flowed like water: so rowdy was a person stretch of saloons on St. Paul’s riverfront in the 1920s that it was nicknamed the “Western Front” immediately after the European line of struggle in Globe War I. When the barrooms closed extensive back, the alcohol trade remained anathema to numerous residents of the bordering “dry” counties. In 2015, 113 folks signed a petition opposing a brewery or the sale of liquor by the drink in St. Paul and offered it to the town council. 

Due to the fact then, tempers have moderated, and Bailey’s Sugar Hill Brewery has become one of the little town’s most important points of interest. “Our beer’s so well known we can not make it quickly sufficient,” he claimed. 

In Southwest Virginia, in which economic conversations are still dominated by the shrinking coal market, the success of Sugar Hill and a handful of other breweries has attracted consideration from not only economic growth teams, but Virginia Tech and point out officers. 

Beer is perennially well-liked and considering the fact that 2012 when the Typical Assembly handed a law permitting sale and consumption at breweries, its creation has exploded throughout Virginia. But for Southwest Virginians on the lookout to diversify the region’s economic climate, it’s not beer that provides the most guarantee. It is grain. 

For two decades, a large coalition of businesses and businesses — from the Virginia Division of Mines, Minerals and Energy to the Lonesome Pine Regional Industrial Amenities Authority to the InvestSWVA company incubator — have been planting the seeds of a novel concept: make Southwest Virginia the main condition source of specialty grains for Virginia’s craft beverage industry. 

“This is anything that persons, seeking again on it, (would say), ‘You’d be nuts to do it,’” explained Will Clear, director of finance and project administration with Virginia DMME. “But I assume that’s what we’re going to require. We need that innovation in Southwest Virginia. We just can not sit around and wait around for it to take place.” 

Agriculture has extensive been a primary business in the coalfields location, and grains were being as soon as developed widely. U.S. Division of Agriculture surveys document Lee County producing as a lot of as 78,700 bushels of wheat in 1937 Scott County almost hit 100,000 bushels the pursuing calendar year. 

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With so significantly production, grain mills also became ubiquitous. A person 1973 study of previous mills in Lee, Scott and Russell counties explained 19 historic constructions. 

“You would have noticed wheat production in Southwest Virginia to a acceptable extent from, say, the Despair era up by means of the 1970s and 1980s,” stated Wade Thomason, a professor with Virginia Tech and the state’s grain crops extension expert. The grain sector, when not booming, was brisk for decades, mainly serving the location. 

“There was a time there the place for just about every draft animal you experienced to function the land, you essential two to a few acres of corn,” reported Thomason. “It was a self-fulfilling program.” 

In excess of time, having said that, declines in wheat prices and growing vertical integration in agriculture — where by a one business assumes regulate of the various levels of a commodity’s creation — commenced to squeeze both neighborhood farmers and regional grain processors out of the industry. 

“They just dropped that regional need,” mentioned Thomason. “That smaller mill and possibly a few of bakeries that would have supplied two or 3 counties grew to become one large mill that was a lot even more absent that equipped 1 major bakery.” 

By 2017, Lee County was only recording 1,900 bushels of wheat on USDA surveys. Some growers in the county were being however elevating wheat, said extension agent Amy Byington, but “there was no area outlet, a big just one anyways.” Soon after a community mill about 45 minutes away in Rogersville, Tenn. shut in 1996, grain had to be trucked to Louisville or outside of. 

“We’re 4 hrs in any route from a position that can hold a big sum of grain and clean up it,” said Byington. 

Even now, even as grain manufacturing ongoing to retreat yr above year, it was not forgotten. Thomason in specific recalled the prior yields that demonstrated specialty grains can flourish in Southwest Virginia, wherever the reasonably mild mountain local weather is favorable for this kind of crops. Additionally, Virginia Tech’s small grain administration application experienced finished a important total of investigate on malt barley, and “we were being looking at the need from the craft beverage market and viewing there was a need for regional source.” 

When Clear and InvestSWVA director Will Payne showed up at Virginia Tech looking to chat about possible financial growth in the location, Thomason pitched the strategy. 

“I instructed them that I assumed we could do this,” he reported. 

‘Appalachian Grains’

Farmers in the region proved careful — but curious. The burley tobacco that had after been just one of Southwest Virginia’s most useful commodity crops has, like coal, been on the drop, and the beef cattle that have in a lot of circumstances changed it frequently aren’t as worthwhile.

“It’s a excellent chance for a lot of farmers,” explained Byington, who has shepherded participants by two developing seasons. “They have to have a money crop, and this is a funds crop exactly where they never have to have a whole lot of labor.” 

In 2019, the recently named “Project Calypso” led to the planting of pretty much 30 acres of malting-high-quality barley in Lee and Scott County that was later processed at the Riverbend Malt Household in Asheville, N.C. right before remaining transported to 18 Virginia brewers, which include Sugar Hill in St. Paul. A next crop planted in 2020 has also been transported to Asheville. 

In Payne’s vision, the grains are not just a commodity equivalent to barley manufactured any where else. Rather, they are a brand, just one he’s christened “Appalachian Grains.”  

For the breweries, the attraction is twofold: customers have an rising desire in locally sourced products, and chopping down on the miles grains have to travel to be malted can also cut down on charges. 

Brewers look at tanks at Sugar Hill Brewery in St. Paul. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

“People want to know where by their foods arrives from, and they like for it to be area,” claimed Byington. “You’re practically likely back to what my father had.” 

For DMME, which has progressively been centered on minimizing carbon emissions, the prospect of diminishing the industry’s carbon footprint was also a attract. 

“There’s 400,000 bushels of grain that’s imported into the point out … from Canada, the Midwest and overseas,” said Crystal clear. “Think of the carbon footprint that we can decrease by taking a substantial portion of that and employing our spouse and children farms, making our loved ones farms.” 

Southwest Virginia’s mountainous terrain, of system, restrictions the size of the crops the region can make. But Byington said the more compact scale of cultivation — on the buy of 100 or so acres — could essentially offer higher overall flexibility for brewers and distillers on the lookout to experiment with unique grains. 

“A whole lot of the distilleries are inquiring us for different grains. … We in the foreseeable future could provide a large amount of exclusive area of interest market place grains that the larger people cannot do,” she claimed. 

“This is not a large market. A several thousand acres of malting barley expanding in Southwest Virginia would undoubtedly provide the craft outfits in Southwest,” reported Thomason. “It’s not just one of individuals crops which is heading to choose in excess of and be hundreds and 1000’s of acres. It’s heading to be an chance to make a small far more income for some farmers.” 

Venture Thoroughbred 

For the project’s backers, the past two many years have demonstrated there is demand from customers for malting grains, and that farmers are inclined to offer them for craft brewers. But a single key bottleneck remains: processing. 

“When Will (Payne) and I first started off seeking at this venture, we begun talking to individuals in the Midwest, substantial grain operators,” claimed Very clear. “They weren’t intrigued in running anything as tiny as this.” 

The group was not deterred. If the grain operators wouldn’t occur, they decided, they would construct an operation by themselves. 

“You’ve bought to have that infrastructure. You have bought to have that community. And you’ve got to establish that all out for it to do the job,” reported Thomason. 

The response they devised was Venture Thoroughbred, a approach to assemble a grain terminal on abandoned mine lands in Norton. The Lonesome Pine Regional Industrial Amenities Authority would possess it, and Mountain Empire Neighborhood College or university would run it and allow learners pursuing certification in grain administration to educate there. 

Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration has been eager to pony up federal and point out pounds to get Thoroughbred off the floor. Involving 2020 and 2021, DMME has approved $2.5 million in federal money by means of the Deserted Mine Land Economic Revitalization Method for the energy (the federal Business of Floor Mining and Reclamation has the remaining say over the expenditures). The venture has also gotten funds as a result of the state’s GO Virginia application and the Tobacco Area Revitalization Commission. 

“We have all the funding secured for the challenge,” said Duane Miller, govt director of the Lonesome Pine Regional Industrial Amenities Authority. “When we do get there, we’re prepared.” 

To Thomason, the terminal may perhaps establish a turning place for the job, from a pilot to the basis of a renewed business in the coalfields.

When folks “see some concrete and steel constructions heading up and a set of scales to make an official obtaining place, then they’re likely heading to say, ‘Oh this is for authentic,’” he explained. “We have to have this recognition from people that, oh, this exists and I like that and I want to have a lot more of that.” 

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