A satellite view of the site of a proposed grain terminal in Norton. Image provided by Will Payne and courtesy of Google Maps/CNES/Airbus, Commonwealth of Virginia, Maxar Technologies, USDA/FPAC/GEO.

Plans are moving forward to build a new grain terminal in Norton as part of an endeavor to boost the region’s specialty grains production for the craft beverage industry.

Officials will start soliciting requests for quotes this month, with an eye toward construction beginning early next year and finishing by the end of 2024 at the former coal loadout facility in the eastern part of the city.

The new terminal will allow farmers to store and clean their malting-quality barley, rye and wheat closer to home. They have been shipping their grains out of state, which increases costs and can endanger the quality of the crops if they sit unprotected in a barn awaiting an available truck.

“Without this grain terminal … this project will not be successful,” said Will Payne, managing partner of Coalfield Strategies LLC and founder of Appalachian Grains, which was created to market and sell Southwest Virginia-grown specialty grains. “It is absolutely essential to our success.”

The grain depot will be built on just over 17 acres of land formerly owned by CAT Coal Mining Inc. and now in the hands of the Lonesome Pine Regional Industrial Facilities Authority, which bought the property in March for $475,000. Russell County-based C&H Solutions will manage the operation.

By the time the terminal is up and running, the old coke ovens and coal tipple will be long gone and will have been replaced by some combination of grain silos, bins and a cleaning facility. The exact design details have yet to be determined.

“We’re excited about what this opportunity will provide for reinvigorating our agribusiness in this region,” said Craig Seaver, project coordinator for the authority, which encompasses Norton plus Dickenson, Lee, Scott and Wise counties.

Seaver noted that Southwest Virginia has a history of growing barley, rye and wheat, and that one of the project’s goals is to bring back agriculture as a staple of the region’s economy.

“How great would it be,” Seaver said, “to be able to consume beverages, the elements of which were grown here in the mountains of Southwest Virginia and processed and produced here?”

That desire for locally grown products is a sentiment echoed by Bryan Hogan, general manager of the family-operated Axe Handle Distilling, which opened in Lee County in late 2020.

Hogan said last year he received some rye grown in Scott County as part of a test run of the specialty grains project. That rye ended up in approximately eight to 10 barrels of the distillery’s bourbon, and Hogan said he had “nothing but glowing things” to say about the crop.

The grain terminal, Hogan said, will benefit Southwest Virginia farmers as they produce more of the local grains.

“The biggest problem that any farmer has, and us too, is the storage of the grains. You need silos to be able to store these huge quantities of grain that sometimes have to be stored for a long period of time. And it has to be stored properly and adequately, with the right moisture content,” Hogan said. “It’s a process, and it’s something that a small farmer can’t dip his toe into. You can’t ask a farmer, ‘Oh, we need you to grow 5 acres of rye, but also you’re going to have to buy $300,000 of silos.’ It’s too big of an ask.”

The effort to build the grain terminal has been dubbed Project Thoroughbred — named for a barley seed Virginia Tech developed in the 1980s that initially was intended for horses but later was recognized for its malting quality.

Project Thoroughbred is one of three legs of a stool that also includes Project Calypso, which is the overall effort to increase the number of Southwest Virginia farmers growing specialty grains, and Project Trace, which aims to track food miles associated with specialty grains to help make the case for using local products.

The effort is backed by $2.5 million from the federal Abandoned Mine Land Economic Revitalization program, which is administered in Virginia by the state Department of Energy, and $500,000 from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission.

Officials held a check-presentation ceremony Aug. 23 celebrating the $2.5 million award, which has been in the works since announcements in 2020 and 2021 that Project Thoroughbred would receive the federal funding.

“Two of the industries that Southwest Virginia is built on are coming together in Project Thoroughbred,” Virginia Energy Deputy Director Will Clear said in a news release. “An old coal loadout facility is getting a new life and Virginia’s farmers are gaining a new opportunity in growing these specialty grains.”

Farmers now are preparing to plant 25 acres of Virginia Tech’s avalon barley this fall for the winter growing season. Assuming the crop meets the necessary specifications, it will be malted and distributed to Virginia breweries for use in craft beverages.

This will mark the fifth season since the project kicked off in 2019 with just two farmers in Lee County. In the project’s third year, more than 80 acres were planted, but problems with out-of-state grain cleaners further reinforced the idea that a local grain terminal was necessary, Payne said.

“We said, whoa, OK, for growth season four, which we just finished, let’s just slow down here a second,” Payne said. “We know we’re not going to be successful without this grain terminal. So why are we trying to accelerate here when we’re going to fail?”

In the meantime, as officials await the grain terminal’s completion, they’ll work on another goal: getting more young people involved in farming, an industry that skews older.

Mountain Empire Community College’s workforce training programs play a part in that, and Appalachian Grains is working with local landowners who are willing to support young farmers’ entrepreneurial efforts by offering their land for use, Payne said.

With hundreds of thousands of farmable acres across Southwest Virginia, the barrier to entry for young farmers isn’t the quantity of land — it’s access, he said.

“The barrier is who owns the land, can you get access to land, can you get access to equipment, and if you’re talking about young people, how can they get access to any of that if they’re not part of a farming family?” Payne said.

Matt Busse is the business reporter for Cardinal News. Matt spent nearly 19 years at The News & Advance,...