Picture the farm of the future and what’s there. Tractors? Crops? Drones? iPads?

Smartfarms are that and more. The Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center is pushing the smartfarm boundaries in the seafood industry through expanding automation for processing to improve economic resiliency in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When we look at food safety and security, these are all enhanced with smartfarm innovations,” said Michael Schwarz, director of the Seafood Agricultural Research and Extension Center. “As a result of this crisis, we're going to see a stronger push into automation, information and data management through blockchain technologies, cybersecurity, and enhanced traceability – things that the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has started moving aggressively on since last year. These are all things that are critical and will be increased and enhanced in the future.”

Through the SmartFarm Innovation Network, Virginia Tech is leading the charge to help local communities thrive and spark a new agricultural and natural resources economy. But the industry also needs assistance now, which led to the exploration of a new method of sales for the typically restaurant-focused seafood industry – direct-to-consumer sales.

With enhanced marketing materials and tactics, the Virginia seafood industry is hoping to capture some of their lost sales to restaurants by reaching the general public directly, partnering with the Virginia Marine Products Board, Virginia Sea Grant, and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in the process.

Smaller, non-contractually-bound producers are the most likely to be able to pivot to the new sales method quickly, said Schwarz, but even the mid to large producers and processors are making rapid strides in this direction.

“For anyone that is not prohibited by contract, direct-to-consumer is also better for margins,” Schwarz said. “A smaller operation may even have the ability to optimize this method of sales so that it can become their primary sales method.”

To better understand the challenges facing the seafood industry not just in Virginia, but across the country, Jonathan van Senten, assistant professor and Extension specialist at the Virginia Seafood AREC and the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, as well as an affiliate faculty member in the Center for Coastal Studies at Virginia Tech, created a survey in conjunction with Ohio State University Extension specialist Matthew Smith that will measure the short, intermediate, and long-term effects of COVID-19 on the aquaculture industry. The survey is being supported by the National Aquaculture Association and other state industry associations.

“For short-term assistance, we hope to connect people to resources that already exist or quickly develop a program or develop a resource that can meet some of those immediate concerns and needs,” van Senten said.

A long-term goal of the survey is to learn and be prepared for the future, van Senten said.

“We are going to learn from this to be better prepared for the future and to help build a resilient industry, such as implementing smartfarm innovations,” van Senten said. “This is an unprecedented time for the seafood industry across the country, and we want to do whatever we can to help.”

- Written by Max Esterhuizen