The third cohort of VALOR fellows were fortunate enough to have our fifth seminar in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. I may be biased, but there is no better place than Virginia’s largest agricultural county (in terms of gross receipts) to learn about agricultural leadership. And when you are in Rockingham County, the unofficial turkey capital, you must talk turkey.
During our seminar, we visited the Virginia Poultry Growers Cooperative (VPGC) grain unloading station in Harrisonburg and one of their growers, Rivermont Farm in Timberville.
I have always known that the formation and success of the VPGC was very important for my local community. However, until embarking on a career in agricultural lending and working firsthand with their growers, I did not fully appreciate the hurdles that the growers and the cooperative faced in their early days. To fully understand how much of a big deal this was for the area, it’s important to have some context of how VPGC came to be.
In April 2004, Pilgrim’s Pride announced that they were closing their Hinton processing facility in six months. The processing facility slaughtered turkeys from about 160 local farms and supported the livelihoods of 1,800 employees and associated businesses. A handful of growers were able to contract with the only remaining turkey integrator in the area, but that left most of the growers without contracts. A study conducted by Virginia Tech in 2004 estimated that the turkey plant and related businesses generated about $200M million in annual economic activity in the area.
With everything on the line, a group of farmers came together and, with a lot of luck and strategic partnerships, formed the Virginia Poultry Growers Cooperative in just five months. This was truly an amazing feat to assemble a capable management team, obtain financing, and successfully run a profitable processing facility.
In order to ensure their continued success in the future, the VGPC built a grain unloading and storage facility north of Harrisonburg in 2007/2008. This location has the capacity to unload 75 railcars of grain in 16 hours. The facility enables the cooperative to purchase corn, their primary feed ingredient, at a reduced rate to ensure future profitability.
To round out our day, we toured Rivermont Farm in Timberville. The farm, owned and operated by David Hughes, has been a VPGC grower since day one. After receiving an indoctrination to poultry biosecurity, we entered one of the four turkey houses. VPGC strategically focuses on a narrow market of the industry and, ironically enough, does not produce turkeys for Thanksgiving dinner. Rather, their 40 pound tom (male) turkeys will be processed into a variety of turkey cuts and marketed to further-processors.
VPGC is also meeting consumer demands for organic and antibiotic free birds. David Hughes raises antibiotic free birds which requires increased attention to detail to ensure that the birds remain healthy. It was quite evident during our visit that Mr. Hughes and his employees go above and beyond attention to detail to ensure their operation remains clean and in order.
Although I won’t find the cooperative’s turkeys on my Thanksgiving table, I can be thankful with each turkey sandwich that VPGC has remained a strong presence in the agricultural community.