As we drove through standing water to reach our first farm visit in Suffolk, the flooded fields and damp strung out cotton seemed to reflect both the grey skies and the year of 2020. The November 9, 2020 National Agricultural Statistics Service reported that approximately 35% of Virginia’s cotton had been harvested to date in contrast to 77% and 75% in 2019 and 2018, respectively. 2019 was a strong year for Virginia cotton production, yield and quality were up. At the end of November 2020, nearly 40% of Virginia cotton was described as poor and very poor in quality. Harvest finished late and the farmers hung up their hats and took a minute to rest before preparing plans for 2021- how many acres will they plant of each crop, what varieties of seed they want to use, and what financial decisions do they need to make.
Most farmers will tell you that Covid-19 did not affect their day to day operations. Fields need to be tended, livestock needs to be fed and crops need to be planted and harvested like clockworks. That is part of being an essential worker. Their job is to make sure that food, fiber, and fuel are produced and sent on to the next part of the supply chain- the gin, the processor, the plant, and then the store. Yet, we did see interruptions in the supply chain this year, from the farm to the table.
There’s a special kind of passion, of faith, of optimism that farmers have- that they have to have if they’re going to make it. We as humans do not control the weather just as farmers do not control the market or the inevitable problems that will arise. We try to mitigate the problems with crop protection tools, technology, the Farmers’ Almanac, researched methods, and educated decisions. At the end of the day though, the heart of farmer will see the seed through from planting to harvest knowing that there will always be a percentage out of their hands, and yet, still prepare for the upcoming year.
This is what I saw as we talked with the farmers, agronomists, and the processors. They may tell you it was a wet year and the crop doesn’t look the way they would hope, but they’re still talking about the future of agriculture- the technology in the tractors, the seed varieties, the opportunities, and how to solve foreseeable challenges. They talk about how far they’ve come from when Virginia only had a handful of acres in cotton after the boll weevil and markets depleted Virginia production; they’re proud to produce a sustainable fiber product that is part of everyone’s day to day life from our t-shirts to our towels with byproducts that can be used to feed livestock.
However, as we moved from farms and research stations in Tidewater and the Eastern Shore of Virginia learning about the diversity of products from pork to potatoes, it was evident that in our weekend, throughout our time with VALOR, and hopefully in our careers long after, we have to address the entire supply chain. We cannot discuss the future of agriculture and serve the industry justly if we do not discuss market stability (or volatility), collaborative needs, and infrastructure deficits. It takes a village, right? The puzzle pieces have to fit together, and that requires work and relationships with the farmers, the agribusinesses, the consumers, the communities, the legislature, and everyone in between.
It all made sense as Dr. Mark Reiter at the Eastern Shore AREC discussed the partnerships they were forging in the community with the farmers in addition to the other research universities in Virginia studying nutrient management, food production, and the Chesapeake Bay. We serve better, together.
I reflected on some of the cohort’s late night conversation the evening before at the hotel and the missed opportunities when we accept current culture versus being willing to challenge it. We accept that people are removed from the farm, that people from urban areas are different than those in rural communities, and that you have to go to college to be successful. We miss out on conversations, on finding common ground, on finding a passion in a trade, on making irreplaceable partnerships.
It’s like Strengths Finder. We all have different skills, talents, and thought processes- it’s why we partner and why we learn to work as a team. It’s heterosis- when the cumulative outcome is greater than the average of the components. Hence, as we step into this journey in VALOR and hopefully for me, a forever career in agriculture, we remember to empower others and all the components of the supply chain and allow each to lean into the strengths. With that said, a heart of a farmer- the passion, optimism and resiliency- is a driving force that the pieces [of the industry] can come around as we mitigate the challenges of the future together.