As VALOR Class VI embarked on our first trip to explore agriculture in the Commonwealth, I was excited to get to know our cohort members better and learn about the sandy, flat regions of Virginia called Tidewater and the Eastern Shore. With family in Central Virginia and the Valley, and living in Southwest, I don’t make it to Tidewater very often. I was pleasantly surprised by the bulk of information I learned over these fast-paced three days. Moreover, it was encouraging to meet and interact with so many industry leaders who are passionate about their distinct roles in agriculture.
The Tidewater region of the state is unique in that some crops raised here are not grown anywhere else in Virginia, namely peanuts and cotton. We also learned about Smithfield Foods’ gargantuan global pork operation and Perdue Agribusiness’ global soybean exports, as well as local and organic niche vegetable operations on the Eastern Shore. A common thread running through all of the farms and operations we visited was having a market for what you produce, which involves knowing that market segment very well and adjusting production scale or methods to meet market demands.
Much emphasis seems to be placed on the production side of agriculture, which is extremely important, but a consumer focus is just as important. We learned about the distinct Virginia type peanuts that are eaten at ballparks across the country and that you may have received in a can as a Christmas gift this season. We saw thousands of bales of cotton at Commonwealth Cotton Gin that were destined to be shipped to mills across the country to make T-shirts for a global market. We experienced the scale of international soybean export as we learned about the many intricacies involved in the logistics of cargo ship export of beans to China and Venezuela from Ray Keating. His quote, “It’s easier to buy something no one has than it is to sell something no one wants,” is telling. In contrast, we talked with Bill Jardine at Quail Cove Organics about the complexities of producing organic sweet potatoes for a regional potato chip market, that then shifted and turned into a sweet potato donut market. At Seafield Farm, on a smaller scale, we learned how Jenna Hunt and her family provide high quality produce for local communities through direct sales and an urban farmer’s market.
Balancing the production with the marketing and sales side of ag businesses is essential to ensure adequate sustainable profits for the long term. The producers we spoke with are highly attuned to factors affecting market shifts, whether they are global trends, geopolitics, or consumer tastes and preferences. For example, Belmont Peanuts expanded their online business during the pandemic to move extra inventory; however, in the process they found this online part of the market is now providing a large part of their sales. It’s interesting how adversity can bring about creativity and innovation. Speaking of innovation, learning about Smithfield Foods’ sustainability and innovation initiatives were mind boggling! While moving toward processing plants that contribute zero waste to landfills, they are also discovering niche markets for swine glands, arteries, and heparin sodium that have human medical applications, all while providing a global supply of pork chops and bacon.
The Tidewater and Eastern Shore regions of Virginia are vital contributors to statewide food and fiber production, with markets for their products that extend globally. We met so many people on our trip who are committed and passionate experts contributing in their distinct ways to the ag industry. I left the region optimistic and encouraged about the vitality of agriculture, from small scale to global.