State agriculture secretary meets with aquaculture producers

virginiaAs state legislators worked to reel in a viable state budget, Virginia’s secretary of agriculture and forestry received industry updates from aquaculture professionals.

“It’s going to be an interesting week as we work through some of our main challenges, but we’re almost there,” Bettina Ring said of budget deliberations on April 16 at a joint meeting of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation Aquaculture Advisory Committee and the Virginia Aquaculture Advisory Board.

Ring was appointed by Gov. Ralph Northam in late 2017 and previously was Virginia’s state forester. She told meeting participants she is committed to representing the interests of the state’s agriculture and forestry industries as the new administration gains traction in its first year.

In the wake of former Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s emphasis on trade, she said, Northam “is not going to shrink back at all from international trade. … We do have some challenges in front of us now as it relates to free trade, but I think we’ll be able to work through that.” She added that a trade-related meeting with Chinese embassy officials is planned.

Other areas of focus, she said, are creating opportunities for farm transition planning; preserving working farms and forests; expanding rural broadband access; facilitating farm-to-school marketing; and, of particular interest at the meeting, protecting key watersheds.

“We know how important that is to aquaculture as we look across the state,” Ring said.

Updates from committee members and others touched on grant funds available through the Governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund; the potential role of aquaculture in urban agriculture projects; and, in coastal areas, tensions between some shellfish growers and waterfront property owners.

Farther inland, consumer interest in Virginia seafood is a rising tide, according to James C. Graves of Madison County. Graves and his family operate Graves’ Mountain Lodge, which offers fee fishing and youth fishing events and also hosts a monthly seafood buffet. The buffet is popular enough that diners must make reservations, Graves noted. “We’re thinking about going to twice a month,” as the appetite for seafood “is picking up in the mountains.”

Danielle Schools, plant program manager and state standardization officer for the Virginia Department of Health’s Division of Shellfish Sanitation, shared news that supported Graves’ assessment.

“We are having more producers become permitted” to sell, Schools said, “and it’s people who want to move the product from the coast to the western part of the state.”