Since this is my first blog post I will start by introducing myself. For the past 18 + years I have lived in Bristol Virginia and have worked as the Southwest Regional Director for the Tobacco Indemnification and Revitalization Commission. In this role I’ve had the opportunity to learn about so many aspects of economic development in our quest to revitalize the regions of Virginia that were heavily dependent on the production of tobacco. I am so thankful to have the opportunity to participate in VALOR and “see how the sausage is made” in terms of Virginia Agriculture. In the case of the Seminar 1 (and our trip to Smithfield) it was actually bacon (but we’re going to work with my poor attempt at humor…. I’m such a ham ;). I truly enjoyed Seminar 1 and the opportunity to get to know the other participants better. I’m excited to be part of such an interesting, smart, and sometimes hilarious group.
During my time working with economic development in the TRRC region the same question tends to come up during every project development meeting. When a new initiative is discussed there is always a moment when “who/what/which comes first” is debated? It’s the classic chicken/ egg dilemma. Which comes first, the site or the industry? Which comes first, the workforce or the employer? And, because this blog is focused on Agriculture and because I probably hear this question more for Agribusiness projects than for any other type, which comes first, the processors or the producers?
My experience in Seminar 1 may have been a step towards answering that question, or perhaps to support the answer I’ve always that has always been my default. Maybe it doesn’t matter which is first. Maybe all that really matters is that one side is developed. It’s less about which is first and more about the energy and effort that is applied to progressing any particular initiative. Having one in place will lead to the other if the initiative is properly focused on viable opportunities. Where there’s a will there’s a way (Where there is a viable market there is an opportunity). Someone must be first but can’t operate in a vacuum and effort is required on all sides of the project. One can’t exist without the other.
My favorite example was from the visit to the Commonwealth Cotton Gin. We learned that cotton processing is somewhat new to Virginia. The growth in cotton production is related to the establishment of a cotton gin (processor before product). Having a local commercial processor is critical to allow producers to realize the highest return for their products and to create new wealth in the community through export opportunities. We saw this in practice as piles of freshly picked cotton were processed before our eyes and then saw a warehouse full of baled product ready to be exported to manufacturers across the globe. At our visit to Perdue Agribusiness we saw export put into practice (although with soybeans rather than cotton). The logistical requirements to aggregate product and organize these shipments was fascinating to me but was also a reminder that this really is the ultimate goal for many of the projects I work with.
I could go on and on about the lessons learned at each stop. Each was unique and interesting to me. I had no idea that essentially all peanuts sold in the shell are of the Virginia variety. I was also blown away by the absolute beauty of the Eastern shore and the bravery of the Hunt family to jump into produce growing with a goal of supplying the local market with high quality products. We saw operations of all sizes with each contributing different products at different levels to local, national, and global supply chains. The “who was first” answer was different for each but all were focused on remaining viable in ever changing markets.