Our latest seminar has brought the VALOR fellows into Southwest Virginia. Our trek began in Blacksburg at the campus of Virginia Tech, then led us through more winding roads than I ever could imagine. As we worked our way through the mountains and foothills of Appalachia; we visited the natural wonder of Burkes Garden, coal country near big stone gap, reclamation projects-bringing life back to previously mined areas, then we made it into Lee County(where Virginia Begins).
Lee County is an area where they are closer to 8 other states capitols than their own, the beauty and isolation bring about a culture all of its own. While in Lee we were able to meet with the Cavin Family, they opened their home creating a wonderfully delicious meal prepared from all farm grown ingredients. From Dale and Jonathan’s farm you can see the lands of Tennessee and Kentucky. Cavin Farms is a 4th Generation farm producing burley tobacco, beef cattle, and vegetables. Despite what people thoughts are about tobacco, seeing the production of this crop and its effect on the local economy of farms was very enriching for me. The area in which I live, there is no tobacco production. As changes in governmental policy and domestic demand many tobacco farmers have retired while others diversify. Cavin Farms branched out into vegetable production for wholesale markets to increase their economic viability with the changing tobacco industry. Truly an eye opening experience for most of the VALOR fellows learning of this crop and the challenges the SW Virginia region face, that most in Virginia take for granite.
After leaving Cavin Farms we visited with Robin Robbins the General Manager with Appalachian Harvest. Appalachian Harvest started in 2000 while seeing a need to maintain agriculture as the lifeblood of the SW region; and many farmers getting out of tobacco farming, this non-profit began training and equipping farmers with the education and tools for vegetable production. Now 13 years later, they have a large packing and distribution facility where they are able to get local farmers products into markets across not only SW Va but into Richmond, northern VA, DC, Maryland. A great tool for those farmers where its an hour plus drive to even a restaurant. Robin herself is a transitioned tobacco farmer, still maintaining her family’s farm in addition to overseeing the Appalachian Harvest facility and distribution.
Our trip has been wonderful, and a reoccurring theme throughout the SW region has been vocalized to our group. Agriculture is the lifeblood of this region, farmers are getting older and there are not many young people coming back to the farms, where will we be if there are no farmers to produce our nations food from SW Virginia…..Hungry. There are tools and resources at hand with those aging farmers, we just need young people willing to get their hands dirty and take charge of their future. Like Mike Rowe has stated “work smart, and hard”.