COURTHOUSE — Two private farming operations were conducted on several acres of city property off Salem Road recently without the awareness or permission of Virginia Beach, officials said this week.
The first has been widely reported in late December — a hog operation far off the road. Officials led by animal control officers seized the swine, some of which were placed with a local farmer before being sold at auction.
The other was hardly hidden – soybeans grown on public property that was easily seen from Salem Road by any passerby.
City and law enforcement officials said they still were investigating how this happened, and they were determining whether charges may result from the hog farming operation. To be clear – there has been no known discussion of a criminal investigation connected to the soy.
Animal enforcement officials learned about the illegal hog farm on Tuesday, Dec. 29, according to a statement released to reporters by Master Police Officer Tonya Pierce, a police spokesperson.
Officials provided care to the animals and coordinated with a number of Virginia Beach agencies and offices and the local farmer who put some animals up before they were taken to market.
“Over 100 hogs were living in deplorable conditions,” said City Animal Control Supervisor Meghan Conti in an interview on Tuesday, Jan. 5.
A criminal investigation was ongoing, she said, noting that officials initially were concerned with care for the animals. [Ed. Note – Roy Flanagan, extension agent in Virginia Beach, was involved in the response. He is related to John Doucette, editor of The Independent News.]
“It is not unusual for somebody to occupy a vacant city structure, but nothing to this extent,” said Barry Shockley, the city’s facilities manager.
Shockley said some farmers farm city land, but they only do so with a specific agreement covering the use of that public property. In the city’s transitional area, there are four such agreements.
Officials discussed the benefits of such programs, which are not new. Various government agencies at various levels have agreements with farmers to keep land owned by public entities working, said state Del. Barry Knight, a hog farmer who represents the 81st District.
Knight, who runs one of the few significant hog operations in Virginia Beach, said he believes the incident at Salem Road was isolated and does not reflect on farming, in general, an important industry here in Virginia Beach.
“I think people understand there are full-time, professional farmers, and then there are people who are hobby farmers,” Knight said. “There’s a clear difference.”
This past week, Shockley said the city aims to put out requests for proposals to farm other city-owned properties this year. Anyone interested in such opportunities or being placed on a notification list can call (757) 385-5659, he said.
Additionally, they can watch for requests at the city website or in notices published by The Beacon, the community news supplement published within The Virginian-Pilot.
He also said his office was trying to work with the soy farmer to resolve the status of the beans themselves, which might include harvesting.
“This is sort of unique, and we’re trying to work through it,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out what is the best for all parties.”
He added: “I hope we never run through another circumstance like this.”
City Agriculture Director David Trimmer, like Shockley, discussed the reasons some city properties with farming potential should be kept working through agreements with farmers.
He said city purchases meant to prevent development around Oceana Naval Air Station or for future development can be kept working and be cared for.
“If we’re not allowing people to farm, the land goes fallow or the city needs to go out there,” Trimmer said.
On Tuesday, Jan. 5, men used a combine to harvest soybeans on another parcel adjacent to the now-marked city property, then loading harvested soy into a truck along the marked path on the city property where the hogs had been.
Regarding the pigs, he made it clear that he had nothing to do with that operation.
“I saw them back there, but I don’t know who they were,” said the man, who declined to confirm his name when reached later by telephone.
The revelation at the Salem Road property has brought unwelcome publicity to one neighbor, a shelter that asked not to be named by The Independent News due to the nature of their work helping people.
Debra Horstman, office manager for the shelter, also made it clear that the hog operation has nothing to do with the shelter – and neither did the soybeans.
Some media reports, she said, have identified the shelter and given people the wrong idea.
The day Horstman spoke, one of the men harvesting had parked a big truck in the shelter’s driveway, and she asked him to move the vehicle from the property.