CLINT SCHEMMER, CULPEPER STAR-EXPONENT
Soon after she set foot in Culpeper County, U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger got an earful about the challenges of getting farm products to market and getting agricultural supplies to farmers.
The second stop on Spanberger’s two-day Ag Tour this week was the Culpeper Farmers Co-Operative, where the chairwoman of the House Agriculture Committee’s Subcommittee on Conservation and Forestry heard plenty about the importance of timely and reliable transportation to agribusinesses.
Greeted by co-op managers and Virginia agribusiness leaders upon arrival at the co-op’s retail store, the first-term legislator briefly toured the shop, eyeing its bib overalls, boots and footwear. Then she headed upstairs to the co-op’s boardroom for an intense conversation with Assistant Manager Mark Ramsey and Dave Newman, general manager of J.D. Newman Inc., a Culpeper-based trucking firm celebrating its 40th year in business.
Newman, Ramsey and others gave Spanberger a crash course in the difficulties farmers face in the all-important transportation end of their enterprise.
Chief among them is the nationwide shortage of truck drivers, as trucking companies scramble to keep enough drivers in the profession to get goods and supplies where they’re needed, as a whole generation of truckers retires.
“There’s no doubt about it,” Newman told the Henrico Democrat. “Agriculture and transportation go hand in hand. And both are under pressure right now.”
Recruiting drivers right out of high school is crucial to the future of the business, before they’re tempted by other career choices, he said.
Today, the profession’s pay is better, the technology is more advanced, and the vehicles are safer and more high-tech, Newman said.
“Kris Kristofferson and ‘Convoy’ would struggle to stay in business today,” Ramsey quipped, referring to the 1978 road-race movie about a rebel trucker.
Trucking is essential for getting farm goods to market and often for getting supplies to farmers and agribusinesses such as the co-op, Newman and Ramsey said. Rail transport is sometimes competitive in price, but always slower, they said.
New federal requirements for drivers’ electronic logs and hours of service make it especially difficult for livestock haulers, Newman and Ramsey said. Drivers can’t necessarily do what is best for the animals’ health, motorists’ safety and trucking’s profitability, they said.
In April, Spanberger joined a bipartisan effort to delay implementation of such logs for commercial vehicles transporting livestock, plants and other perishable goods.
She supported the bipartisan Modernizing Agricultural Transportation Act, which would create a working group at the U.S. Department of Transportation to examine regulations governing service hours and electronic logs.
That bill is endorsed by numerous farm organizations, including the Virginia Farm Bureau, which is taking part in Spanberger’s ag tour across her 7th District in Central Virginia.
Tuesday’s six-hour jaunt took the House member from Virginia Cattle Co. in Radiant in Madison County, to Culpeper to Louisa, where she held cattle industry and conservation roundtables at, respectively, James Kean’s cattle farm and Dragonfly Farms, a lamb producer.
Her second stop in Culpeper was in Mitchells at Commonwealth Greenhouses, owned by third-generation grower Benjamin Van Hoven, who lives in Rapidan.
In six acres of greenhouses and on 20 acres of irrigated field, Commonwealth grows ornamental plants on contract for other growers, which enables it to avoid some of the stresses on greenhouse operations that deliver to retail stores, Van Hoven said.
His highly efficient business, founded in 2012, employs about 25 workers and grows hundreds of thousands of potted plants each year in immaculate, drip-irrigated fields and hothouses. This season, it is growing poinsettias and chrysanthemums.
Asked if the Trump administration’s tariffs on foreign goods have affected the business, Van Hoven said they have not, as he ensures his buyers furnish their own foreign-made pots for whatever is he growing for them.
Besides, he said he takes a farmer’s stoic view of market forces, likening them a bit to the weather—a factor outside of grower’s control.
“You just deal with it,” Van Hoven said. “We still have a job to do. So we just focus on what we can do better.”
Leaders with the Farm Bureau, Virginia Agribusiness Council and Farm Credit of the Virginias praised Spanberger’s outreach to agribusiness, the state’s No. 1 industry.
Kyle Shreve, the Agribusiness Council’s executive director, expressed its appreication for Spanberger’s efforts to understand what her constituent farmers and farm businesses “are dealing with on an everyday basis.”
“We’re excited to showcase the diversity of agriculture in the northern part of the 7th Congressional District,” said Katie Frazier, the Farm Bureau’s director of external affairs. “It’s great that Spanberger has so much interest in getting out there and meeting with farmers and agribusinesses, and seeing lots of different operations.”