Southwest Virginia: An Exercise in Contrasts

As the only aggie in a high school graduating class of 330, urban-edge agriculture resonates very strongly with me. Outside observers may dub it a curious novelty and question your sanity (who would *want* to cultivate crops when there are houses aplenty to grow), but there’s nothing especially peculiar about agriculture on the fringes of suburbia. The VALOR trip to Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. immediately placed me in a familiar environment: one of conditional success, but increasingly fraught with the same challenges faced by my NY neighbors for the better part of 60 years.

Urban farmers are the textbook case of the entrepreneurial spirit: nimble enough to leverage their business acumen against seemingly insurmountable odds. I was especially partial to Endless Summer Harvest, a hydroponic lettuce operation in Loudon County – probably not the backdrop Jefferson envisioned when he coined his Agrarian Ideal. Despite this, owner Mary Ellen Taylor has thrived with an operation that can provide year-round lettuce to a very select clientele. The (not-so) secret of her success and others like her is the engagement of the Agriculture Development Officer, Kellie Bowles, and Destry Jarvis, Chair of the Rural Economic Development Committee. The local government appreciates the quality of life that a rural character imparts to the community. I also had the pleasure of meeting Mark and Vicki Fedor of North Gate Vineyard, NY transplants who have continued their success “down South”.

The trip to Whole Foods (WF) was similarly eye-opening. Despite some apprehension (and admittedly entrenched bias) WF was awe-inspiring. They have successfully designed a model that fuses the amenities of a local supermarket with a sprawling, mall-like food court that accentuates their “hometown” cred – all while downplaying their monolithic stature in the natural food market. Perhaps not unsurprisingly as an academic, I was drawn to the ANDI (Aggregate Nutrient Density Index) scores listed on much of the produce, as well as their in-house sustainability rating standards. If there ever was a standard metric for measuring something as nebulous as “sustainability”, this might be a good starting point.

One has to appreciate the splendor of D.C. and its environs, because it’s a stark contrast to the untapped potential of Southwest Virginia. This seminar was the most unconventional to date because it strayed from the regional ag trip formula – instead focusing on rural issues. SW Virginia is a fine platform for a frank discussion on health care access, economic development, and secondary ag education.

After some humbling health care facts were presented by Delilah Long at UVA-Wise, I think the most impactful portion of our trip was the Remote Area Medical (RAM) Fair, an event marked by thousands of attendees eager to receive even the most basic medical care. Wendy Welch followed by hosting us at her Second Story Café – bringing some real-world anecdotes from the health care trenches. I was especially appreciative of how Kelley Pearson recounted her health care plight (for her and her family) as an enduser, as well as Destiny Baker’s perspectives as an enduser and soon to be practitioner as an RN. Both made an impassioned plea for health care reform. One recurring theme was how individuals who stand to gain the most from political action on the healthcare front often vigorously try to subvert it – working against their own self-interest. Can this be attributed to a principled stand or issue ignorance? Probably a bit of both. Whatever the reason, it’s unfathomable and untenable to have anyone effectively priced out of essential medical care.

But lack of health care access is just ½ of SW Virginia’s modern tapestry. Both a political hot potato and a flashpoint for the environmental movement, the death of coal also looms large. Unfortunately, I don’t see a viable alternative emerging from the figurative and literal ashes. Economic development will need to take other diversified forms, possibly using the Wildwood Industrial Park as a baseline.

Education took center stage with our visit to Carroll County High School’s STEM Lab for Agriculture – a facility fitted with all of the digital “trimmings” to train a 21st century workforce in the intricacies of ag. Perhaps this is another venue for job growth in the area.

Despite the unique tone of this seminar, that’s not to say it was entirely devoid of agriculture. The Farmer’s Market was an impressive site, as was Worrell Family Farms and The Beamer’s Virginia Produce Company. I occasionally longed for the family farm when I saw trusty 1 ¾ bushel hydroboard cabbage boxes stacked neatly on CHEP branded pallets.

At just over the halfway mark, the VALOR seminars continue to impress with a diverse array of sites, speakers, and leadership development opportunities!

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