When Gov. Ralph Northam is asked about his top priorities as leader of the state, he has a ready answer: ensuring Virginia has a thriving economy.
Agritourism, which blends the state’s two top industries of agriculture and tourism, is key to that goal, Northam said Thursday at the Virginia Agritourism Conference.
Remarks from the governor capped the two-day conference held at Hotel Roanoke, which included tours of local farms and panel discussions on topics ranging from safety to social media.
Northam also spoke Thursday at the Governor’s Infrastructure Financing Conference just down the hall at Hotel Roanoke.
At both conferences, Northam mentioned the successful passage of amendments he proposed that would provide funding for improvements to Interstate 81, just taken up by the General Assembly on Wednesday.
“Legislators came back yesterday from rural and urban areas from both sides of the aisle and really practiced what I call the Virginia way, and that is agreeing to disagree in a civil way but at the end of the day sitting down at the table and doing what’s in the best interest of Virginia,” Northam told the agritourism crowd.
Improvements to the interstate are essential to getting visitors from one agritourism site to the next, he said.
“For small towns and rural communities, agritourism can be a driving force for revitalization and resurgence,” Northam said.
At a time when more people can work from anywhere, so long as they have internet access — something else the governor said he’s working to improve in rural areas — they have more choices about where to live. Perhaps people searching for a work-life balance or natural beauty will choose to call rural communities home, he said.
Much of what attracts visitors to Virginia, from the mountains to the wineries, is centered around natural assets, Northam said, making it important to conserve them.
“By creating more opportunities for on-farm income, more families are able to keep their agricultural land in their families,” he said. “And by creating more opportunities for visitors to embrace and enjoy that experience we’re creating more partners in land conservation.”
As a pediatrician, Northam said he got in the habit of asking children what they want to be when they grow up. He recalled posing the question to a group of middle school students, offering a list of professions and asking the children to raise their hands for the ones that interested them.
“When I said, ‘How many of you want to go into agriculture?’ — and I might have said ‘Be a farmer’ — not one hand was raised,” Northam said.
He challenged everyone in the room to show children that agriculture is about providing food for the people and is an exciting industry to be in.