We Don’t Grow Tobacco

The song I chose for this blog’s title, by Old Crow Medicine Show, is somewhat of a contradiction, because as our visit to Southside Virginia showed us, tobacco is still very much a part of the region. However, we also saw that farmers are increasingly having to diversify their operations, with row crops, beef, and even hemp, in order to supplement this once dominant crop.

JTI Leaf Services is part of Japan Tobacco International, which is the #3 tobacco manufacturer in the world, with 40,000 employees in 77 countries and 19 years of consecutive profit growth. Through increased efficiency and cost-cutting, (mainly labor), JTI has been able to maintain profits in a declining industry. The company chose Danville because of the proximity to the port, state and local incentives, and the people in the area who already knew this kind of work. It’s always interesting and beneficial to know what attracts businesses to rural areas.

At the Olde Dominion Ag Complex, which is an amazing example of what can happen when a group of local farmers identifies a need and goes after it, we heard from the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year, Mike McDowell. It is always exciting to see that award brought home to Virginia, and Mr. McDowell is clearly well-deserving of the honor. In addition to interesting farm stories, he shared with us his succinct, but powerful philosophy: “Leadership is managing antagonisms.” Life will always throw up conflicts and roadblocks, and handling them is what makes a leader.

Speaking of leadership, we also had the opportunity to visit Briar View Farms, owned and operated by a previous Farmer of the Year Robert Mills. (If you haven’t heard him tell his story, you need to take the time do so!) In addition to a farm tour where we learned about his poultry, tobacco, and hemp operations, Robert shared his experiences and challenges, both in the field and in the board room. From his current position on the Virginia Farm Bureau State Board of Directors to his time as president of the Virginia Board of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and much, much more, Robert’s energy and desire to serve the agricultural community was certainly inspiring to us as future agricultural leaders.

Lastly, we stopped at Knoll Crest Farm, a fourth generation farm leading the industry in beef genetics. They sell about 400 bulls a year and estimate to have put a bull in every state (except for Alaska and Hawaii) and most provinces in Canada. One issue that came up in discussion was one of particular interest to me–farm transition and managing multiple generations on one operation. At Knoll Creek Farm, our host, Dalton, works with his father, grandfather, and two uncles. One piece of advice he had for ensuring things run smoothly—make sure each person has a clearly defined role.

As we look to 2020, I can now count on one hand the number of sessions Class IV has left, including our international trip and graduation. It’s unbelievable how quickly the program is moving! We spent some time this session giving final project updates, and it is clear how much people have grown and taken away from this experience. I’m looking forward to building on this work and to all that the new year will bring!

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