It’s hard to believe that we have just completed the first year of the VALOR program. Wow, what an experience! And, the latest seminar in Southwest Virginia was one of the most memorable seminars so far! Southwest Virginia has such a distinct culture, and this cultural uniqueness was evident throughout the trip. It was one of the things that made this seminar so fascinating.
The culture was shaped by coal mining. The prosperity of coal mining brought forth so many unique characteristics of that community. You can feel the history in the vibrant music that originates from the area. You can see the past generations toil in the farms and fields as you pass along the road. You can hear the diverse backgrounds in the thick accents of the local people.
We started our seminar at the Virginia Produce Company where they package and process vegetables grown all over the Eastern United States. From there, we went to Appalachian Sustainable Development where they advocate for and provide marketing for local agriculture. These two stops highlighted how people in the community look out for one another.
The next day, we began by touring the Domtar Paper mill, where we discussed the other major industry in Southwest Virginia, which is forestry. Then, we visited the impressive LMU Vet School campus. What a wonderful experience it must be to be a student there! The students get to practice medical procedures on really cool replicas, treat livestock, tend to farm chores, learn from the best veterinarians in the world, and live in beautiful Appalachia! From there, we went to Mr. Shipley’s tobacco and hemp farm. Tobacco also had a profound impact on the culture. However, recent market declines have created enormous challenges in the agricultural community. Mr. Shipley, however, has shown that farmers can preserve their way of life if they are willing to take advantage of new opportunities.
On our final full-day of the seminar, we focused on issues surrounding the coal mining industry. The coal mining museum in Big Stone Gap was fascinating, and the story of former coal miner Freddie Elkins really explained how the culture was influenced by coal. We listened to Tyler Hughes perform some folk songs, and the history of the area seemed to come alive. One thing was apparent throughout this visit, and that was the struggles that the community has faced, and continue to face, are immense but inspiring. Later, we looked at 3 different farms that are located on reclaimed mine lands. The resilience of the land, people, and industries were highlighted.
One of the last events of the seminar was one that really showcased this vibrant culture. We attended an outdoor play titled Trail of the Lonesome Pine. While the plot was somewhat odd and the acting a bit quirky, I felt completely attached to the characters. They reminded me of all the Southwest Virginia locals we met during the seminar!