Valley businesses to showcase their sustainability efforts

Yuri and Shep Mroczek-Waller work as the official vineyard weeders at Star in the Valley. Yuri and Shep save the vineyard workers time and reduce reliance on fossil fuel herbicide. (Photo provided)

By Logan Roddy, contributor

After years of making potato chips in fairly tight quarters, Sarah Cohen faced a decision: expand or quit the business. But she said she knew at that time if she were to continue with Route 11 Chips, it would have to be in a responsible and sustainable manner. 

“Years and years ago, when we were in Middletown, we would throw our peelings in the dumpster. We were paying somebody to come pick that up and they’re basically just picking up a dumpster of water,” said Cohen, who first started making potato chips in 1992.

Cohen opted for expansion and opened a production center in Mount Jackson in 2008, and Route 11 Chips has since become a local favorite. This year, for a celebration of Earth Week, Cohen is joining several other Shenandoah County business owners for a Sustainable Business Summit, hosted virtually by Sustainability Matters on April 22 — Earth Day. 

For the month of April, the organization is also holding an online auction where people can bid on experiences, such as a wine and cheese seminar at Woodstock Café, for instance, or a tour of Cohen’s Route 11 Chips’ facility, where the company has found some innovative ways to use leftover materials. 

“One of the best things about coming to Mount Jackson is we have a herd of cows that really love our product,” Cohen said. “And that’s a byproduct of our process. They’re happy to eat it, and the farmer’s happy to get it, and it helps supplement part of his feeding routine.”

Sarah Cohen (photo provided)

Cohen said they’ve also found people to use other byproducts, such as leftover cardboard and vegetable oil, by “doing everything with it from roasting their horse feed in it to making biodiesel out of it. Some of the waste oil we use to run our generator in our maintenance building where we do projects and fix stuff.”

The factory itself was also designed for efficiency and conservation. It has a white membrane sun-reflecting roof that reduces energy and gets its power from 100 percent renewable hydroelectricity, Cohen said. She said being sustainable was on her mind from the beginning — but it was also common sense.

“We’re cooking potato chips in a kitchen that can potentially get very hot, so we wanted to make sure our employees are comfortable. We put in a lot of natural light, a lot of airflow. We wanted it to be super easy to clean, so we’re using fewer chemicals. Our production line is in a straight line, and that helps with motor energy so it’s very straightforward. It’s sustaining the business, our staff, and our customers.”

Not letting good ideas die on the vine

While facility design is imperative to minimizing waste, Shane Waller of Star in the Valley Winery said location is equally, if not more, important. At more than 1,000 feet in elevation, Waller said the vineyard is perfectly positioned to catch the breeze.

“It helps keep the vineyard dry, and that’s the name of the game for vineyards is you gotta keep things dry because the rain and humidity and moisture are what spread diseases in the vineyard which necessitates having to spray fungicides to stop mildew,” Waller said.

Waller also said the grapes are well-suited for Virginia’s climate and are typically heartier and more disease resistant. In the case of reds, they’re traditional Bordeaux varieties, such as Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. But with whites, Waller has stepped into relatively new territory by planting Chardonel, a French hybrid made up of Chardonnay and another hybrid, Seyval blanc.

“Chardonel is becoming more and more popular but no one’s really ever heard of it, so it’s a gamble if you have a grape variety that may produce great fruit, is hearty and disease resistant, but part of it is an educational component when people come to the winery to tell them that it’s related to Chardonnay, has the same flavor profile, and allows us to be very hands-off in the vineyard,” Waller said.

In order to keep the vineyard floor mowed and full of organic material — and to cut time driving tractors through the field — Waller adopted two heritage breed sheep last year as a natural symbiotic solution to upkeep.

“This year we’re gonna get about eight more, and their jobs are to live nice long happy lives, eat a lot of grass, eat a lot of weeds, and give us a little fertilizer,” Waller said.

The heritage breed is slightly shorter at the shoulder, a throwback to the days before refrigeration, when a family could process and eat the entire animal before its meat went bad.

Returning to the past for sustainable practices

At Jon Henry General Store in New Market, Jon Henry is also reviving some decades-old practices to reduce waste. Along with repurposing supply boxes and bags for customer shopping vessels, the store’s use of glass milk and beverage bottles has garnered nostalgic appreciation from some older customers who remember them from the 1960s and earlier.

Henry’s family has farmed for generations in the Valley.

“We grow a bunch of produce, tomatoes, squash, cucumber, pumpkin, sweet corn, and we were looking for a larger market to sell it in. And part of that was we were opening up the general store as an outlet,” Henry said.

It sells blue jeans and books, boasts a Silly Sock collection that is “unrivaled in the Valley,” and can be a one-stop shop for groceries and any tchotchkes.

“Our farm where we grow our fall vegetables is under a conservation scenic easement so that land can’t be developed. We’re working with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation because it borders a creek that feeds into the Shenandoah and Chesapeake, so we’re doing a two-acre easement where they’re going to be planting trees all along that to prevent erosion,” Henry said.

Henry worked with Sari Carp, executive director at Sustainability Matters, as well as the organization Friends of the North Fork to connect with the Department of Forestry and plant more than 300 trees at the back of the property to help restore the riparian buffer and keep cattle out of the water. 

The general store is also one of four grocery stores — and the smallest in the state — that participates in Virginia Fresh Match, a program that allows people who use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits or EBT to double their dollars on fresh produce. The other participating locations are the Friendly City Food Co-op in Harrisonburg, the Roanoke Co-op, and The Market at 25th in Richmond. The program began in June 2020, as an effort to alleviate some of the stress of food insecurity among lower-income families.

Jon Henry General Store is in New Market. (Photo courtesy of Jon Henry)

While Henry’s goal is to eliminate as much waste as possible, he says it’s not always possible to be perfect. 

“I had this revelation myself while we were going through COVID,” Henry said. “We’re going to have to change up some of our practices. We can’t use rags to clean all the time anymore. We’ve got to use disposable cloths. Just being able to grow with it and move forward.”

Another complication that came with the pandemic was the increase in packaging. With many retailers shifting to e-commerce, curbside pickup and delivery, it became difficult for many business owners to avoid using plastic. 

“Sustainability is a convenience factor,” Henry said. “Sometimes you just don’t want to make that extra trip to the dump, so you look for other ways to reduce how much trash you have to throw away.” 

Restoring balance on the land

Jeffrey Carithers, an owner of a farm of more than 100 acres, has been working to eliminate invasive species and improve the quality of the land since 2001. He partnered with Sustainability Matters last year to create Native Virginia Now, a video series that showcases how he and his wife, Ali, take care of their property.

Development and cultivation of land over the last few centuries have disrupted the natural balance and gave way to destructive invasive species. While true native prairies could have up to 250 species of flowers and plants, it would be rare to see more than a quarter of that figure now. 

“There is virtually nothing left from the way things were back three or four hundred years ago,” Carithers said. “There’s not the soil infrastructure needed to help them grow and exchange nutrients. There’s far less than one percent of native species, even in the Midwest where there are large numbers of prairie and prairie restoration.”

Carithers said on such a large piece of property, he tries to help restore it as much as possible.

“The most difficult in dealing with Mother Nature in general is scale and balance,” Carithers said. “Scale —  meaning that with over 100 acres on a property, I can’t control everything. I am trying to guide Mother Nature along. Fortunately she’s on my side and wants to have native species there generally. And balance is being able to recognize what I can accomplish and what I can’t. It’s full of surprises.”

So far, Carithers has eliminated invasive species — which he also calls “alien aggressives” — such as Tree of Heaven, tall fescue and Autumn olive. The key? Persistence.

“There aren’t natural defenses for them here. There aren’t animals to eat them or bacteria to kill them or viral infections that control them. They go crazy here and proliferate and are out of balance with the native species,” Carithers said. “It’s just like we’re experiencing now with coronavirus. Over hundreds of years we would evolve, and it wouldn’t be a problem. Normally, you don’t have such major shifts in nature.”

Repairing aspects of an ecosystem sets off a domino-like effect for other organisms. Eliminating a grass like tall fescue allows development of prairie biodiversity, which, in turn, gives smaller animals like ferrets, squirrels and woodcocks room to thrive and avoid predators.

“We have a long history of management and figuring out what to do and how to do it. I’m just about to start my other series called Native Virginia How, which’ll go into the steps involved in restoring a property like this,” Carithers said.

Multipurpose benefits

One thing that Cohen and the other business owners agreed on was that while being sustainable is important for reducing waste and pollution, it’s also great for their bottom lines. 

Whether it’s Jon Henry saving on transportation costs by sourcing locally, or Route 11 using heat exchangers on cooking kettles to warm the kitchen in the winter, the deliberate steps have multiple purposes.

“It makes an economic difference. It makes life easier. This is where our footprint matters the most, because we’re bigger than a household, so we have to be hyperconscious about being clean. And that always made sense to me. I don’t want to be polluting something or damaging something,” Cohen said.

The business auction is raising money to fund Sustainability Matters’ pilot program Backyard Food Bank: Grow Your Own, which aims to teach low-income Harrisonburg families how to grow their own fresh produce with limited space. 

By offering people the chance to bid on life experiences rather than products, executive director Sari Carp said she hopes it will encourage them to learn about sustainability.

“Businesses have to make compromises, and if you are not economically sustainable, then it doesn’t matter how environmentally sustainable you are because you won’t be around to be sustainable anyway,” Carp said. “All of our panelists and those involved with the auction are both, and they’ve had to make hard choices. And they are very honest about those hard choices.”

Cross-pollination plays a large part in how each business interacts with the land, but also in how they interact with each other and their surrounding communities. 

“They’re involved with us not only as panelists, but as event participants, as friends, as sponsors, on multiple levels,” Carp said. “All of these businesses have a Shenandoah County base … And I think it shows that even in a small very rural county where there isn’t a lot of money, it is possible for sustainable businesses to thrive, through creativity and values.”

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