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A First Time for Everything

When was the last time that you experienced something for the first time? 

Every time I’m put into unfamiliar situations or when I find myself facing a new or unexpected experience, I ask myself this question. I think we can all agree, as we get older, the number of times we encounter something for the “first time” becomes more infrequent. Throughout my life and career I’ve lived in a lot of places, met a lot of people, and seen agriculture from a variety of perspectives. That being said, our VALOR seminar to Tidewater and the Easter Shore this fall was full of firsts, not only for myself, but for my classmates as well. 

A New Crop

Growing up in California, I’m no stranger to the diversity of agriculture. While I’ve seen many of the more than 300 commodities produced in my home state, never once had I encountered a peanut plant or spent much time with anyone involved in the peanut industry. Thankfully, our gracious hosts in southeast Virginia helped to open my eyes to this incredible industry, unique to this portion of the state. My peanut education began with Dell Cotton, who spent time orienting our class to the anatomy of the peanut plant, the different varieties of peanuts available, and the production impacts the industry has on the region. Dell was also instrumental in setting up tours with Belmont Peanuts and Birdsong Peanuts so that we would be able to see not only how peanuts are processed and packaged, but also the role that buying stations like Birdsong play in providing a market for the product and specifically how Birdsong supplies growers with seed for their next crop. My new found peanut knowledge has been great to share with my colleagues and family over the holidays as we enjoyed some of the delicious flavored peanuts I purchased while on our tour of Belmont. 

A photo with the Birdsong Peanut team, as well as Dell Cotton in front of the biggest pile of peanuts I’ve ever seen!

Agriculture is Global

It’s well known that agriculture is a global industry. We are fortunate that farmers and ranchers in the United States not only produce enough food to feed our citizens, but produce in surplus to help feed, clothe, and fuel the world. While I know this to be true, I have never experienced agricultural trade as up close and personal as I was able to during our trip to the Perdue AgriBusiness facility in Chesapeake. Personally, I struggled to understand the magnitude of product that moves through this facility and into the global market as Ray Keating discussed the millions of bushels of soybeans that they handle and ship on a regular basis. For being a guy named LARGE, I certainly felt SMALL as we toured the facility, and stood for a picture in front of a ship being loaded for an international destination. It was incredible to see and hear how product grown all over the state of Virginia and region will find its way all over the world thanks to folks like Ray.

Our class with Ray Keating of Perdue AgriBusiness in front of a ship being loaded at the Chesapeake facility.

Holistic Sustainability 

A highlight of this seminar for me was a stop at Smithfield Foods. It was incredible to hear from the R&D team there, tour the plant, and see how they innovate to make a variety of products that many of us have enjoyed. This stop along the tour also helped me to see sustainability in a new light. We were able to share a meal with several members of the Smithfield team, and hear from Brooke Wynn, the Senior Director for Smithfield Sustainability. This is such a hot topic these days, but it was so interesting to learn of the holistic approach to sustainability that Smithfield is undertaking. Not only are they helping to support sustainable and climate-smart production on the farm, but they are also investing in education, training, and local communities as part of their sustainability efforts. What a novel concept right? When you invest in people and communities, you create a pipeline of talent and ideas to sustain your organization into the future. Not only are they working to address and combat climate change, but they are helping producers and communities to thrive as well.

Suited up for our tour of the Smithfield North Plant.

Agriculture is for Everyone

This trip to southeast Virginia was the first time I was really able to see so many stark contrasts in agriculture production, so close to one another. We saw large-scale and small-scale production. Conventional and organic methods used to grow food and fiber. Family run businesses and large global corporations. It was incredible to see generations of the same family working alongside one another AND first generation farmers trying to determine what works best for their business and customers. It was incredible to see the automation and volume of production in places like Smithfield and Commonwealth Gin, while recognizing the incredible amount of labor still needed either from the local community or H2A program workers. These differences just helped to reinforce to me that this is an industry for everyone, and there are certainly many stakeholders and individuals involved in agriculture in southeast Virginia.

I am so thankful for the hospitality of the agriculture community in southeast Virginia. To everyone who hosted our group, thank you for allowing me to experience a number of “firsts” that will stick with me as we continue our travels throughout the state. I am looking forward to visiting Richmond soon, and hopefully being able to share the stories of our agriculture family in the southeast with legislators and policy makers. Until next time!

1 thought on “A First Time for Everything”

  1. Great post, Austin! I love the reminder that no matter where we are in life, there are always chances to experience “firsts” – and, I like to think that even when experiencing something I’ve done before, there are “firsts” in seeing it through the perspective of those there for the actual first time. Such a fun part of being a lifelong learner!

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