The Virts family has been engaged in traditional farming (think heavy equipment, rigid growing seasons and cornfields stretching for acres) since it settled in Loudoun County in the late 18th century. Twelve generations later, things are beginning to change.
Donald Virts, who farms 1,000 acres in northern and western Loudoun, decided that he had to adapt his methods to evolving economic and environmental conditions. His new business model, which he is introducing at CEA Farms north of Purcellville, embraces concepts such as hydroponics (growing crops in water), controlled environment farming, renewable energy sources and marketing directly to consumers.
Virts, 56, said his family grew traditional crops such as corn and soybeans when he was growing up, as well as raising cattle for milk and beef.
He said that for decades, he followed a similar model but that doing so increasingly became a struggle. He had trouble finding workers who were willing to put in the required hours for wages he could afford.
“If I couldn’t do it by myself, I couldn’t do it,” Virts said. “That’s not good. You can’t make a living doing everything by yourself.”
He also realized that the costs of land and equipment had grown too high and that profits were too small.
“I couldn’t keep fighting that any longer in Loudoun County,” he said. “So I had to do something.”
In fall 2014, Virts built a greenhouse on his property at Purcellville Road and Route 9. The controlled environment allows him to grow tomatoes, strawberries, lettuce, cucumbers and other produce year-round. The greenhouse increased his yield and reduced water consumption.
“The general rule is that you get 50 to 80 percent more volume per acre using 30 to 50 percent less water,” he said. By growing the plants vertically in racks, mounted one above another, Virts is able to make the best use of the space, he said.
Instead of using soil, Virts grows his plants in water, feeding them with a fertilizer solution. This eliminates the need for chemicals to kill pests and weeds, and gives him maximum control over what goes into the plants, he said.
Light, temperature, ventilation and even the pollinators can be controlled inside the greenhouse, Virts said. Every month or two, he puts in a box of bees to pollinate the plants.
CEA Farms — the name stands for controlled environment agriculture — is the most diversified hydroponics operation in the region, said Kellie Boles, Loudoun’s agricultural development officer.
“The fact that he’s growing strawberries, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers is just extraordinary,” Boles said.
Virts decided that another way to increase his profits would be to sell his produce directly to customers. Hoping to capitalize on the growing number of tourists who are flocking to Loudoun’s wineries, he opened a farm store in the fall next to the greenhouse to sell produce from his farm.
The store also sells organically grown produce from other local suppliers, as well as beef, pork and lamb from livestock raised nearby. It houses a kitchen and an informal dining area where customers can eat freshly prepared sandwiches made from the meats and produce sold there.
“When I cook these burgers and serve them to people, as soon as they eat it, they come over and buy some [packaged meat], because of the flavor,” Virts said. “And when they put a slice of these tomatoes and a piece of lettuce on it, I’ve got a customer for life.”
Virts’s long-term plan includes adding several greenhouses and powering them from renewable sources such as water, solar energy and wind. He thinks his store will be able to handle the yield from all of the greenhouses.
“That’s the ultimate goal of what my family and I are trying to do here,” he said. “Everything we grow here on our farms, we want to market [directly] to the public.”
Barnes is a freelance writer.