Southside: One of Virginia’s “Extremes”

I wasn’t really sure what to expect during our trip to Southside Virginia. This is a part of our state that I have visited quite few times personally but never in the context of the agriculture industry. We hit the ground running as always when we arrived in Danville. Our first visit was to JTI Tobacco International which is the third largest manufacturer of tobacco in the world and they have been vertically integrated since 2009. We were fortunate to be visiting when the tobacco has recently been harvested so we could see the entire process during the tour. I always assumed that tobacco was a relatively easy crop as it simply needs to be harvested and dried. As usual, I had over simplified what is a very detailed process. The company has been successful because the leaf produced in the area is the highest quality. As it is prepared in the plant, they must ensure that all of the debris and lower quality leaves are removed. Some of this is done through automation but there is still a considerable number of employees who are hand inspecting as well. It was a very interesting visit that set us up well for the rest of our trip.

We also had the opportunity to meet with two producers who happen to have both won the Farmer of the Year and are VT alumni. We first heard from Mike McDowell whose family farm was initially a tobacco farm. As the tobacco market shifted, Mike and his family made the decision to change the operation to black angus cattle. It was interesting to hear this perspective as it showed perseverance. We also visited with Robert Mills who is a diversified producer. A large part of his operation is dedicated to tobacco. It was helpful hearing a producer’s perspective is it tied in well with what we learned at JTI. Robert and Mike are both leaders in the industry and they provided valuable insight into the importance of being a part of the conversation. Because they are involved in their communities and well respected they are able to advocate for the agriculture industry. Their stories were inspiring and particularly relevant to the VALOR group.
The leadership development segment of the seminar focused on emotional intelligence. This gave us dedicated time to reflect on our own areas of improvement and how we can strive to be better leaders. We had a particularly thought-provoking discussion about how we can take the skills we are learning and be true leaders when we graduate the program. I am hopeful that we continue this conversation and develop a plan of action.

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