Virginia Beach’s agricultural industry tells a story beyond economics

Every morning David Trimmer wakes up thinking about the viability, sustainability and growth of the agricultural industry in Virginia Beach.

Trimmer—and the city—places a heavy focus on its agriculture, which makes up a third of its economic output, alongside other major industries like the military and tourism. The viability of the industry is such that the city’s fruits and vegetables don’t necessarily need to be exported, as it’s doing an impactful job serving the 8 million people in the region and its visitors.

Telling a Story

Beyond its profit-making—which is substantial, the industry made $190 million in 2022—the city’s agricultural industry is doing much more; its telling a story and educating its locals and visitors. Although the city has multiple suppliers who often sell large quantities to major retailers, farmers also have their eyes set on smaller, more memorable experiences right on the farm. “Why sell something wholesale if you can sell it at retail?” Trimmer asks. “And if you have a story to tell, you can create that agritourism buzz.”

Trimmer, who became the city’s agricultural director in 2008, parallels the city’s agricultural education with how the city and many other states have been showing and continue to show off their wineries. “We started producing our wineries. We would sell stuff at markets and we would sell it through stores and sell it through wholesalers,” he says. “Wineries in the state and in a lot of areas got the feeling, like, ‘Hey, we’ve got a great story here. Why don’t we market it and bring the people to our farm, [and] bring them to our winery.’ We’re doing the same thing on agriculture side. We got a story to tell here.”

Agricultural Preservation

field of sunflowers
Sunflowers at Salmons Farms

One of the ways Virginia Beach and the farmers who live there are able to keep their farmland for farming and out of reach of development is through the city’s Agricultural Reserve Program, enacted in 1995. The program currently has 909 development rights, covering 10,518 acres across the city.

According to Trimmer, this means the landowner sells the number of housing rights on that property, meaning nothing but farming can take place on that now-sold land. “You still own the land, it’s always yours. You pay taxes. You can sell those rights to the city through the program and preserve that for future generations. It would never become an issue, it would be part of your estate planning. It’s just a way to protect that property.” After a minimum of 25 years, the landowner can request to repurchase development rights, which is then reviewed by the city council.

Read More: Coastal Virginia

Trimmer said he has often seen children leave to go off to college to eventually come back and decide they want to take part in the farming tradition.

He recounted last April when he visited a farm and had a meal where all the food was local. “You listen to their story between each meal, they tell you about their farming operation and the generational aspect of what they do,” Trimmer says. “If you’re a suburban person and you’re just getting exposed to that, you get a greater appreciation for what’s going on.” The city also hosts field trips and educational programs for kids from inner-city schools to learn about the farming and agricultural process.

Putting It into Practice

red tractor on farm
Red tractor at Henley Farm

The Department of Agriculture works and Visit Virginia Beach have a symbiotic relationship, bringing in conventions from across the U.S. to Virginia Beach Convention Center. For example, Iowa Soybean Association is coming to the city in May. “They want to go see what’s going on in farming in Virginia Beach. We all play a part in that. Whether we’re going to a research facility or just going out.”

“We want to buy local, seasonal, sustainable,” says Beth Williamson, general manager/district manager for Sodexo Live!, Virginia Beach Convention Center’s on-site F&B supplier and operator. “We have a lot of great resources here. Maybe when people come here, they don’t know about that. We want it to be our job to educate them and let them know what’s here….There’s some great farms and activities they can do and visit while they’re here. We can use those resources in our menu planning and when we have conventions and guests coming to the convention center.”

A great example of Virginia Beach tapping into its local farms for events at Virginia Beach Convention Center was the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation Conference held in November 2023. The 500-guest event was a more direct look at Virginia’s farming community, showcasing vegetables, fruits, dairy and various meats and seafood from 12 of the state’s local producers, who also made up the event’s attendees.

Read More: Your Complete Guide to Sustainability

The food on display included homestyle meatloaf from Coastal Cattle in Virginia Beach, southern style collards and mini sweet potatoes from Shenandoah Valley Produce Market in Dayton, cheesecake shooters with berry garnish from Richlands Creamery in Wilsons, among other locally sourced meals.

Williamson says they receive a lot of requests about what menu items are local and regional. When local producers aren’t coming to the convention center themselves, in the case of the Farm Bureau Conference, the convention center’s team is doing research of their own to connect with the local farming community, who are also dependable resources, should the team need to connect with others in the community.

“They all work together,” she says. “We also have a local farmers market. Sometimes if the chef is interested in looking for a product, she may go there. They may not have the volume we need at the farmers market, but she can make those connections and we can get it directly from the different farms in the area.”

Molly Crouch, corporate sustainability director for Sodexo Live!, says, “There’s a big push in Sodexo Global all the way down to each of the regions to make sure we’re finding local farmers and responsibly farmed outlets to buy our product from, and we’re allowing that product to go within 150 to 250 miles. That’s helping with our carbon emission reduction. Folks want to see the regional [food], they want to see what was grown here, they want to taste the flavor of the city they’re in.”

Williamson and her team work directly with the convention center’s sustainability coordinator, Kimberlee Dobbins. “She’s heavily involved in the process with the meeting planners and letting them know what we already do. Letting them know about the recycling, that we do composting, finding out from them what type of items they’re going to have to make sure that we’re recycling everything….Then when [the planner] comes to us for the food planning, we’re continuing that, offering the options we have for local and sustainable menus.”

Virginia Green Certification

Virginia Green was launched in 2007, created to encourage green practices in the state’s tourism industry. In addition to certifying businesses, like hotels, breweries, restaurants, museums, tour companies, and sports and music venues and Virginia Beach Convention Center, meeting profs can also apply to have their individual event green certified. Qualifications for certification include sustainability commitment related to recycling, waste reduction, water, energy, communication and signage.

Thirty-nine annual Virginia-based events have been green certified since its inception.