VALOR summer seminar witnesses rural challenges and daring leadership in southwest Virginia

A family farm, WiFi, a renegade health initiative, and a high school biotechnology lab. For VALOR fellows this July, these are some of strategies that illustrate the creative — sometimes daring — leadership in sustainable economic development in southwestern Virginia.

VALOR fellows trek across rich Wytheville pasture and farmland with dairy farmer describing success in the new wedding tourism market, but the lingering challenge of finding and retaining skilled labor.

VALOR fellows trek across rich Wytheville pasture and farmland with a dairy farmer who described success in the new wedding tourism market, but the lingering challenge of finding and retaining skilled labor remains an issue.

At Carroll County’s Southwest Farmers’ Market, innovative leadership decisions in the shape of a re-purposed shipping container supports small farmers. Five years ago, unable to cool their perishable corn crop, local sweet-corn farmers could not compete in the market. The county stepped in to build a hydrocooler – a $1 million contraption they built out of a shipping container and air-conditioning duct work for a much lower cost, then the county opened it up for a small fee letting farmers quick-cool their crops, lengthening the corn’s shelf life from three days to two weeks and opening the more lucrative, regional market to Carroll County farmers.

“It was like building the space-shuttle, but we did it,” said county administrator Gary Larrowe, leading the VALOR team that day. Everyone laughed, but realized that, to a farmer, adding value opens doors to regional markets – bringing that county investment back home.

“Providing this equipment gives small- and medium-sized farms the chance to grow,” Larrowe said.

The Carroll County visit demonstrated to VALOR fellows how sustainable economic development attempts to strategically integrate all levels of a community’s economic sectors. For example, investment in a biotechnology lab at the county high school is targeted to attract white-collar and high tech investment because their employees will approve of the school system; a furniture manufacturer from North Carolina was wooed to provide trades jobs; and a family-run produce distributor, a county-funded kitchen incubator and the hydrocooler support and stimulate the county’s small-scale agricultural sector.

Driving through the county, VALOR fellows discussed the multi-county alliance among Carroll, Galax, and Grayson counties that is marketing an industrial park site, its energy, water, and sewer, and telecommunications infrastructure built to attract agricultural processing, IT services, manufacturing, and logistics operations.

On the Virginia-Kentucky border, closer to Lexington than Richmond, Wise County's landscape, even scarred by its coal mining history, is beautiful, suggesting great potential for destination tourism post-coal.

On the Virginia-Kentucky border, closer to Lexington than Richmond, Wise County’s landscape, even scarred by its coal mining history, is beautiful, suggesting great potential for destination tourism post-coal.

Following the day in Carroll County, VALOR traveled to Wise County, famed for its rugged beauty, its craft tradition, coal heritage, and deep Appalachian poverty. Now, post-coal, far Southwest Virginia scrambles to diversify, redefine its allegiances, and bolster its economies, but the renaissance it seeks needs steady, coalition-building leadership to envision and fulfill its potential.

The VALOR visit coincided with the annual Remote Area Medical event. RAM events both inspire and dismay. In the sheds and barns of the Wise County Fairgrounds, hundreds of teeth were being extracted and filled, fingers pricked for diabetes screenings, lines of women climbed into the mammogram van, and new glasses made for children and grown-ups who are unable to afford insurance. The Wise County Fairgrounds were swarmed with health workers and volunteers providing on-site care to more than 1500 people over three days, a demonstration of pragmatic leadership linking people who need basic healthcare with people who give it.

Finally, at a bookstore cafe in a deep-porched Victorian full of local art in pretty, riverine Big Stone Gap, VALOR lunches were sourced from the peach trees out back and the community farmers’ market. VALOR fellows contemplated the connections among and between healthcare, education, food insecurity, community, and a viable workforce. Over heirloom tomatoes and greens, complicated issues of leadership in an environment of entrenched social hierarchies were weighed against the beautiful region’s great potential for music and coal-heritage tourism, beds-and-breakfasts, wilderness travel, and academic biological sciences tourism.

The VALOR Program seeks to challenge the mind and stimulate action in the advocates and industry leaders it develops. Our next bimonthly session will be to address hot topics and issues facing agriculture on the Northern Neck and Chesapeake Bay. To learn more about VALOR, visit our website, follow our blog, or contact our director, Megan Seibel, at mseibel@vt.edu or 540.231.2375.

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