By Jerry Moles
Moles is an agriculture consultant, founder of Grayson LandCare and founding board member of Blue Ridge Plateau Initiative and SustainFloyd.
In the Sept. 30, 2018 edition of the Roanoke Times, a lengthy statement by former Gov. Gerald Baliles appeared followed by an editorial proposing that his statement be taken seriously. Baliles suggests that education is the answer to economic improvement in the “tobacco counties” and called on college and university presidents to take the lead in determining next steps. To support the effort, he suggested that funds remaining in the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission be used to support the solutions proposed by the presidents. These funds are from payments by the tobacco companies to assist farmers in the transition away from tobacco production.
Baliles is right to question the benefits realized by the farming communities but, as is often the case, the presidents of our colleges and universities are not especially well-informed as to what is going on in our rural areas. While well-versed in ongoing research and educational objectives and activities coupled with their administrative duties, there are people out in “the rural horseshoe” who understand in greater depth and detail the challenges based upon lengthy experience. Many of these people were educated in the same colleges and universities that these presidents serve.
In an Oct. 1 editorial in the New York Times, Wendell Berry, farmer, philosopher, and professor, is quoted as saying, “If politicians and journalists want to know about the problems of agriculture, they are not likely to go out into ‘Rural America’ to observe the conditions of the fields and the waterways or to talk to the farmers and the ex-farmers, the ex-merchants of the small towns, or to talk to the mayors and county judges of rural counties. Instead, they are very likely to talk to the academic and bureaucratic experts, who are tightly bound within the industrial structure of agriculture, agri-science, and agribusiness.”
Admittedly underfunded and lacking research and educational support, steps are underway in addressing rural challenges engaging the natural and human resources available. The Wise campus of the University of Virginia, Virginia Cooperative Extension, and the community colleges of rural regions are helpful in addressing specific educational needs but are limited in vision, personnel, and funding to engage our communities in evaluating our resources and reaching consensus on what works best for us here in the moment. Beyond the colleges and universities, there is an active and engaged leadership in businesses, local governments, non-governmental organizations, state and federal agencies, schools, churches, and civic groups who have been working together over the past 30 or more years in setting agendas and addressing our needs with successes on the ground.
At the same time, there is little or no funding for coordination of these activities to gain access to growing markets, determine the technological requirements for participation, and create the business and financial plans to make this possible. Rather than being hypothetical, let’s focus on ongoing activities in Southwest Virginia.
Red Sun, a Mexican company, has placed 40 acres under greenhouses near Dublin supplying year-round tomatoes and other vegetables to the Mid-Atlantic and Mid-West. Major breweries have moved into the region from California, Oregon, and other places. Pepsi Corporation has a major bottling operation near Wytheville and the reasons are simple. As the West and Midwest dry out, we have a magic elixir here. It’s called water.
A Virginia Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services (VDACS) staff member commented that 15 years ago if someone had suggested that greenhouses were the future of agriculture in Southwest Virginia, they would have been called a fool, but today the number of greenhouses is increasing.
Last year, Virginia Produce and the Southwest Virginia Farmers Market, both located in Hillsville in Carroll County packaged more than $140 million in produce and shipped to Midwest and Mid-Atlantic supermarkets. Construction will start soon on a red meat harvest facility (abattoir) in Hillsville near both packaging operations. Truckers can drive for 10 hours and, within a radius of 10 hours from Hillsville, reach over 62 percent of the U.S. population. Interstates 77 and 81 cross nearby. We are uniquely positioned to expand agriculture to meet the needs of a growing population.
An agriculture consultant suggested that SustainFloyd “think California.” The point is that we have unique growing seasons and can, for example, produce brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, brussel sprouts) in the summer when warmer temperatures limits production in other places in the southeast. In California, in mid-winter, the brassicas are produced around Los Angeles, San Diego, and in Mexico. As spring unfolds, the brassicas move north and arrive along the coast near San Francisco. Other cropping possibilities were mentioned. In evaluating markets and our soils and growing seasons, new opportunities emerge.
Quality matters. Pasture raised and organically certified animals are bringing premium prices and demand is growing. Danny Boyer of Four Winds Farm, with the support of the Matthews Foundation, Grayson LandCare, and Virginia Tech, is demonstrating that by changing pasture management, costs and labor can be reduced, and profits increased.
Since 1995, Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD) of Abingdon has engaged farmers and businesspeople in developing new crops and finding markets and have extended their services into Eastern Tennessee and Kentucky and West Virginia. Beyond agriculture, ASD focuses on workforce development, health, and wellness.
EcoVillage and Riverstone Farm in Floyd County, Wagon Wheel and Windy Hills farms in Grayson County, and many others are demonstrating the production of nutrient dense vegetables grown in high quality soil using time tested crop rotation strategies. River Ridge Farm has constructed and is operating a meat processing facility for jerky, beef sticks and smoked prime cuts. Local farmers markets are successful and niche markets including restaurants are being served. Farm to school programs are delivering produce to cafeterias. A region wide agriculture working group has been formed to apply for funding from Go Virginia, a bipartisan business led economic development initiative supported by state government. There’s a lot going on and this brief summary only touches a small portion of the activities.
Missing is the continual linking together of the land, water, people, labor, finance, technology, transportation, education, and markets to create business and financial plans. Changes in agriculture are not quick. Asking farmers to stop what they are doing in favor of other alternatives requires on-the-ground demonstrations linked to viable markets. To change, seasons and years are required with funding and education available for new technology and management practices. Successful agriculture development projects are often a decade long through a process of continually learning as each step is taken. Wendell Berry observed that it takes even an experienced farmer at least six years to learn how to farm a new piece of land.
As a society, we’ve place ourselves in a number of organizations, e.g., agencies, businesses, colleges, universities, financial organizations, busy with practices that have served in the past. Too frequently, there is little communication among these organizations or engagement with others from the outside. Additional funding will likely result in their simply doing more of the same for this is what they know how to do best. In Baliles’ assessment that too few benefits from the Tobacco Commission funding have reached the rural counties, could it be that the circumstances at ground level have yet to be appreciated and addressed? That those within these organizations continue their practices with little appreciation of the complexities to be addressed in creating a vibrant and resilient agriculture?
There are new opportunities and we must organize ourselves in different ways to take advantage. The red meat harvest facility (abattoir) mentioned above has taken ten years to reach the point of raising funds for construction. Supported by volunteers, over $150,000 has been raised to fund the planning and design of the facility. Carroll County has provided a site, and finally there is a secure year round flow of animals, seventy plus per week, to reach beyond financial breakeven. Changes have been made in grass management, markets found, calving seasons extended, and genetic stock selected for the greatest returns. Supported by farmers, county governments, local businesses, Virginia Cooperative Extension, state and federal agency personnel, etc., the impetus behind this collaborate effort and the final design is local.
Initially facilitated by Grayson LandCare, a local non-profit, farmers and others came together to decide upon a value-added beef industry that required an abattoir. Because Grayson LandCare has a wide range of projects, a second non-profit, the Blue Ridge Plateau Initiative, was created to focus specifically on the development of an infrastructure linking farmers of SW Virginia to expanding markets building upon the market access of Virginia Produce, the SW Virginia Farmers Market, and other enterprises.
The facilitation offered by the two non-profits filled a missing organizational link between the “rural horseshoe” and the broader world of education, finance, businesses, and markets. With careful attention to the natural resources, ongoing farming enterprises, financial resources, and the expertise of the universities and state and federal agencies; people joined together to create plans that serve their needs and return benefits to those very same counties that the Tobacco Commission is designed to serve. Rather than depend upon our busy college and university presidents, support should be given to facilitation efforts like those exhibited by Grayson LandCare, the Blue Ridge Plateau Initiative and others attentive to the resources and strengths of our rural communities. There is unambiguous and clear evidence that planning and action at the grassroots level serves both funders and local goals.