NORTON — A former coal tipple in Norton may become the next step in transforming Southwest Virginia agriculture.
The Lonesome Pine Regional Industrial Facilities Authority, the Norton Industrial Development Authority and marketing partner InvestSWVA are closing on the purchase of the tipple site for an approximately $3 million grain storage and shipping facility, according to LPRIFA Coordinator Craig Seaver and InvestSWVA’s Will Payne.
The facility — which the three agencies say could start construction this summer with a possible opening in early 2023 — follows three years of Project Thoroughbred, an effort to show the region’s farmers that craft breweries and distilleries offer a new market by growing barley and rye as winter crops.
“The story of what we’re doing matters because we’re trying to reinvigorate a farming economy in Southwest Virginia,” said Payne. “Breweries love that story of using local grains in a local product.”
“Agriculture has a cultural and historical importance for our region,” said Seaver. “It was once a main staple of our economy. Instead of growing and shipping grains away from here, if it can be consumed here it can become part of the social package of living and recreating here.”
The planned Norton grain site builds on two years of Thoroughbred barley and rye harvests that started in 2020 with two growers in Lee County. Payne said the first harvest from 24 acres resulted in 17,600 pounds of malted Calypso barley that went to 18 breweries in the region and across the United States. Good reviews from that first round of breweries led to 2021’s production of 24,800 pounds of malted grain from 21 acres. Payne said that harvest went to seven breweries across Virginia to help validate the grain’s quality and market it to more breweries.
Malting the grain to make it ready for brewing began with one maltster for the first two harvests, Payne said. Two maltsters will be handing the 2022 harvest of Calypso and Violetta barley varieties from 82 acres across Lee, Scott and Washington counties.
“Because it’s a winter crop, it’s a whole new market for our farmers,” Payne said. “They can plant it in the winter after the summer soybean crop. We’re working with Virginia Tech Extension to show farmers the techniques and how it can expand their yields and income.”
“It’s a situation where we can encourage more farmers to consider winter grain planting,” said Seaver. “We could even see rye from Rye Cove.”
Thoroughbred also coordinates with Mountain Empire Community College’s Smart Farming program, which uses drones and other technology to provide farmers with improved information on their soils and environment to help improve crop quality and yields.
“Partnerships are so critical to this project,” said Payne. “Extension agents provide the validation and expertise for farmers wanting to plant grain, and the Smart Farming program supports that work.”
The Norton grain storage site builds on the past two years of work by addressing transportation and supply costs. While Southwest Virginia is building its niche as a grain supplier, farmers still must ship grain for distribution. To date, the closest grain facility has been in Lexington, Kentucky. When operational, the Norton site will cut shipping distance and time for local farmers, Payne said.
The Norton site also means a closer and potentially cheaper grain supply for regional breweries as transportation costs for traditional grain suppliers from the Midwest and Canada have “exploded,” Payne added. The Virginia Department of Energy has approved $2.5 million in abandoned mine land revitalization money on top of $500,000 from the Virginia Tobacco Commission for the project.
“I believe Southwest Virginia produces top-notch grains that meet brewers’ high standards,” Payne said. “We’re making the business case for why they should consider our grain.”
Read More: Project Thoroughbred brewing a new step in changing regional agriculture | News