RICHLANDS, Va. – October 25, 2017 – Leaders from throughout the area assembled today in the King Community Center at Southwest Virginia Community College (SWCC) for a regional summit on the economic development of the agriculture industry in the coalfield region of Virginia. The regional Agriculture Summit was held by SWCC and the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority (VCEDA).
Keynote speaker Dr. Basil Gooden, Virginia’s Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry, noted that agriculture and forestry represent a $91 billion impact on the economy of the Commonwealth. “That is due to farmers, producers, scientists and innovators, creativity and hard work like here in Southwest Virginia. Thank you for your commitment to agriculture and economic development.”
Secretary Gooden also said the future of agriculture “belongs to those who can embrace technology.”
Preliminary results of a study commissioned by VCEDA from the Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development were presented at the summit. The purpose of the study was to help identify opportunities and develop a regional strategic plan for economic development within agriculture.
Three economic development focus areas are key to promoting agriculture as a target industry for the southwest Virginia coalfield region, according to the study. These three focus areas are cultivating new agricultural business opportunities for the local population, attracting large scale agricultural related businesses from outside the region and providing assistance for existing agriculture related businesses.
“Agriculture has long been an important part of the economy of Southwest Virginia. At VCEDA, we are looking at ways to help diversify the economy of our region. When VCEDA formally added agriculture as a target industry last year, we needed to take a look at the possibilities and opportunities for economic development in that sector, and we asked the Virginia Tech Office of Economic Development to assist with that by completing this regional strategic planning study,” said Jonathan Belcher, VCEDA executive director/general counsel.
According to the study, the focus areas identified can help the region prioritize investments and supporting strategies that contribute to economic growth through agriculture.
Seven key strategies are outlined in the study: forming an agricultural advisory group of stakeholders, enhancing agricultural development and marketing, promoting agricultural financial education, helping producers diversify and differentiate, expanding meat processing, developing and supporting cooperatives and reimagining reclaimed mine land and existing industrial sites for agriculture endeavors.
Key suggested strategies include working together with the community colleges and other educational systems to develop relevant agricultural and financial management curricula, partnering with ongoing efforts in agritourism, organic farming and branding, and supporting cooperatives in niche areas such as goats and sheep, medicinal roots and herbs and grass finished beef. Another key strategy is to conduct an asset analysis that expands and updates a map and inventory of industrial and reclaimed mine sites for ag-related industry.
The study involved over 200 regional stakeholders through interviews, producer meetings and surveys and a 30+ member advisory committee of agricultural and 4-H agents and specialists from Virginia Cooperative Extension as well as community leaders and educators to understand the contemporary issues and trends in the region’s agriculture economy, according to the executive summary of the strategic plan.
“The Agriculture Summit was made possible thanks to SWCC,” said Belcher. “SWCC is a great partner in the field of economic development, and we cannot thank them enough for all they do to support the education and economic development of the area.”