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Seminar VIII: Southside VA

VALOR Class IV’s first stop on the Southside tour was JTI – Japan Tobacco International – Leaf Services in Danville, VA. At the facility we watched and learned how tobacco was bundled and brought in by partner farmers, cut, re-hydrated, sorted and repacked for international distribution. Tobacco products were not made at this facility but some of the flagship brands JTI supplies includes Winston, Camel and new electronic cigarette products. Approximately 90% of a tobacco bundle of perfect leaf specimens from the farmer makes it into the finished shipped product, a 400+lb box of high quality tobacco leaf pieces. JTI explained that while most of their grower population is in the Carolina’s, the Danville location for a packing facility was chosen due to incentives and tax benefits provided by Virginia and local governments, as well a the already established and trained workforce in the area.

Our next stop on the tour was the Old Dominion Ag Complex. What was started as an idea for a new office and community picnic shelter from nine local farmers and the local Farm Bureau turned into a multi-faceted all-in-one community facility. The Ag Complex includes all “ag community services” under one roof – including FSA, Virginia Cooperative Extension and USDA; Farm Credit was recently added across the parking lot. With cattle working facilities for comingled load lots to a an oudoor horserink and stable, this center is used for many different functions all year long. Its convention hall can seat up to 500 people and split into three seperate meeting rooms. the hallway serves as a local ‘museum’ with relics of the area’s tobacco history and culture. The Old Dominion Ag Foundation is its own 501c3 and is proudly community driven and supported. Their regional mission is to “promote and support regional agriculture while offering a community based facility to educate and entertain”.

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While at the ODAC, we had professional development discussions on leadership, emotional intelligence and advocacy as a cohort. We were then joined at lunch by Mike McDowell, the Swisher Sweets Southeast Farmer of the Year. It was a pleasure to hear him speak and we welcomed his nominator, Rebekah Slabach, Agriculture Extension Agent for Halifax County to our luncheon as well.

We then made a stop at the farm of Robert Mills in Callands, VA. Robert is a first generation farmer and was the Virginia Finalist in the Southeast Swisher Sweets contest in 2017. Robert operates Briar View Farm, a diversified tobacco, beef and poultry operation. He grows flue-cured, dark fired and organic tobacco as well as industrial hemp. Robert’s message to the group was to find the right kind of diversification and plan ahead for your future. While help wasn’t for everyone this season, he explained that his situation worked out, this time. He worked with reputable buyers and reliable contracts and ended up doing well, while other farmers are still looking for buyers. He also explained that by growing a specialty type of tobacco, new markets were opened up for his farm. While tobacco, as well as the cattle sales are somewhat seasonal, the chicken breeder house he runs provides a steady annual stream of income to get him from one growing season to the next. With his sons soon to return to the farm, and with ideas of their own to improve and expand the farm, Mills stated having a plan for the future is necessary.

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Our third and final stop on the Southside seminar was at Knoll Crest Farm in Red House, VA with Dalton Bennett. While at Knoll Crest we briefly toured their sales facility while discussing issues like herd health, semen sales, genetic testing and the importance of record keeping in a farm operation. We also touched on the subject of farm sucession which is a hot topic for today’s next generation of farmers looking to take over and continue farming operations. The farm holds two bull sales a year. Their farm produces over 400 bulls for both sales and is in its 4th generation of its family-owned operation. Most bulls are sold within 200 miles of the farm location and are backed by the farm for quality and genetics.

What I learned from this seminar is similar to that of far southwest VA. Southside is full of resilient agricultural entrepreneurs  and multi-generational operations. It is steeped in tobacco culture which drives a lot of decision making and revenue streams in the area. I also learned that with changing times comes the need for diversification and plans for the future. A farmer must look into his own operation (wallet and heart) and figure out what is the best future move for the operation to continue.

And speaking of future, each VALOR fellow gave an update on their class projects. Lots of great ideas were shared. Some fellows have made strides to completion while others sought classmate support and input on next steps, myself included. My project is both personal and work-driven: I hope to establish a Highland County 4-H Endowment to help ensure programming funds for Highland 4-H activities for generations to come.  My goal may sound lofty, but I think with the right connections made and perseverance, its very possible!

I’m looking forward to our January seminar as well as getting ready for the international seminar in March. I wish everyone in VALOR Class IV a Merry Christmas and a blessed time with family and friends as we welcome in the New Year!

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