From coalfields to Christmas trees: VALOR explores the southwest

The inaugural class of VALOR recently held its eighth of 12 seminars in Southwest Virginia, with content centered on an exploration of agricultural issues in that region. Fellows heard presentations from faculty members Alex White and Richard Crowder on the Virginia Tech campus during the first session. As the former chief negotiator for agricultural trade with ambassadorial status, Crowder shared that the globalization of agriculture will bring about change in the industry that is unprecedented and as a result that agriculture will change more in the next 25 years then it did in the previous 50. White spoke about contemporary and complicating issues facing ag business.

VALOR Fellows visit with Matthew Phipps of Bottomley Evergreens, an operation that harvests and ships Christmas trees in Grayson County, Va.

VALOR fellows visit with Matthew Phipps of Bottomley Evergreens, an operation that harvests and ships Christmas trees in Grayson County, Va.

The highlight of day one was a reception hosted by the Farm Credit of the Virginias Board of Directors to commemorate a pledge of $120,000 to establish the Farm Credit of the Virginias VALOR Excellence Fund.

The second day began with a tour of Burke’s Garden, in Tazewell County, which is Virginia’s largest Rural Historic District. This agriculture-based community occupies 21,000 acres and is home to Lost World Ranch and the largest herd of Bactrian Camels in North America.  The ranch owner, William Jurgelski, shared his passion with VALOR Fellows and explained, “Success is enjoying what you do every day.”

The day came to an end in the coalfields of Wise County. John Belcher, director of the Virginia Mining Association, discussed issues facing a coal industry that produces more than 20 million tons of coal from 242 sites and employs more than 20,000 people in Southwest Virginia. The fellows were able to draw parallels between the opportunities and threats to the coal industry and agriculture.

VALOR Fellows learn about the ongoing research projects related to the reclamation of mining sites from Wise County Extension Agent Phil Meeks.

VALOR fellows learn about the ongoing research projects related to the reclamation of mining sites from Wise County Extension Agent Phil Meeks.

While in coal country, Fellows met with Virginia Cooperative Extension Agent Phil Meeks to learn more about the public-private partnership between Virginia Tech and the coal industry.

This research and education partnership, known as the Powell River Project is located on 1,100 acres at the headwaters of the Powell River. Meeks emphasized the importance of collaboration with industry and shared that the findings of research conducted at the PRP have had a profound impact on mine reclamation practice. The research results at the PRP have been incorporated into reclamation practice by many Appalachian coal-mining firms.

Next, the fellows visited a diversified operation at Cavin Farms in Lee County. The Cavin family shared the importance of educating the non-farm population about the significance of production agriculture. Fellows were asked to be a voice for agriculture in Virginia. As early adopters of social media, the Cavins emphasized the importance of being connected to consumers through Facebook and Twitter, which not only provides farmers a chance to tell their stories, but also serves as a direct marketing channel. A visit to Appalachian Harvest in Duffield, Va. allowed General Manager Robin Robbins to share that the operation was established to help local farmers who were looking for ways to continue farming after transitioning out of tobacco production. Fellows were able to see how the community and farmers collaborated to develop markets and new opportunities for prospective farmers. Robin’s passion for the agricultural industry was inspiring as she described how they meet supermarket demand for large quantities of produce. Appalachian Harvest pools resources during harvest when growers bring produce to be inspected, cleaned, packaged, and shipped collectively with other farmers in the region.

The day ended at the Southwest Virginia Agricultural Research and Extension Center where the group was hosted by Superintendent Lee Wright. Wright shared how the AREC and industry collaborate to develop new markets and support farmers in Southwest Virginia. One example of this collaboration is a new hair sheep industry located in Washington County, Va.

The last day of the seminar included a visit to Bottomley Evergreens, one of the largest Christmas tree producers in Virginia. Processing more than 600,000 trees annually is no small feat, and Matthew Phipps shared the process from field to shipping with the VALOR group. Phipps spoke of issues facing the evergreen industry and encouraged the fellows to become a strong voice for Virginia agriculture. The last stop of the seminar was Richdale Farm located in Wythe County. Owned and operated by three generations of the Crowgey family, their operation stresses the importance of farm diversification and a willingness to change. This grass-based operation shared a success story for others to emulate as they returned to the dairy business after a four-year hiatus. Taking a new approach with a forage-based system has helped this operation thrive.

This seminar provided fellows with an opportunity to better understand issues facing agriculture from multiple perspectives. Whether within the context of labor, farm succession, change management, or communication, the overriding themes were about embracing change and the importance of bringing people together to collaborate and solve the collective problems facing our vast agricultural industry.

VALOR would like to thank Farm Bureau Boards in the counties of Russell, Scott, Tazewell, Wise-Dickenson, and Washington for their sponsorship of seminar expenses, as well as the Cavin Family and Tazewell County Cooperative Extension.

For more information about VALOR, please contact Megan Seibel at 540-231-2375 or mseibel@vt.edu.

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