PENNINGTON GAP, VA (WJHL) – A partnership designed to spur economic growth in Southwest Virginia has added smart agriculture technology — in the form of drone flyovers — to a malted barley farming initiative it supports.

Invest Southwest Virginia is focused on supporting local economic development and marketing in the Southwest Virginia region.

The public-private partnership launched its first project in October of 2019, working with local farmers and growing malted barley, which is a new crop to the region.

Now, Mountain Empire Community College (MECC) has joined the project, bringing with it “smart farming” technologies it first began developing in 2015.

WEB EXTRA: Will Payne, Co-Owner of Appalachian Grains, LLC explains InvestSWVA and Mountain Empire Community College’s smart farming and barley production program.

At Fannon Farms in Pennington Gap, MECC performed one of the first official drone flyovers of a barley field in Southwest Virginia.

The hope is that this will help improve crop yields in the future.

“Our team has been working to demonstrate that this region can grow malting quality barley and be a significant provider of the grain, especially the grain throughout Virginia,” says Will Payne, the Co-Owner of Appalachian Grains, LLC and a key member of InvestSWVA.

The barley fields on Fannon Farms in Lee County are almost ready to harvest after being planted in the fall of 2019.

MORE: InvestSWVA launches first project; Farmers growing barley for craft beverages

“We’re hoping it will malt and we’re going to have a malting barley crop. Hopefully the 25th of June is our estimated date we’re hoping to harvest,” said Hank Fannon, Owner of Fannon Family Farms.

Malted barley is a key component in the process of making craft beverages.

Right now, most malted barley in the region is from out of state.

InvestSWVA hopes to keep farmers and entrepreneurs working together in the region, and now MECC is helping the project grow.

“We’ve developed a program which is essentially a year long to have students essentially get their hands wet, down and dirty and how to actually process the data necessary to maintain a farm, how to use precision farming techniques to deliver, fertilize, pesticide, herbicide to just a single location in a field. Not spray the entire field, and we’re doing that with the use of agriculture drones,” said Fred Coeburn, the UAS Instructor at Mountain Empire Community College.

Images caught by Coeburn’s drone will help farmers monitor the water flow of their fields and measure yields to help predict how much and where to plant in the future.

Smart farming and drone use has become the new way of agriculture in the Southwest Virginia region, and now InvestSWVA’s barley project will help students and farmers learn more about growing a new crop in the region.

The barley at Fannon Family Farms will be ready to harvest at the end of June or early July.

MECC started its Smart Farming Program in 2015.

According to school leaders, it was one of the first colleges where students can earn an associates degree in Drone Based Smart Farming.