by Jackie Nunnery
Residents have long appreciated the Northern Neck’s rural surroundings and blend of agriculture and aquaculture. Now others in the state are taking notice.
Last week, participants in Virginia Tech’s VALOR program toured the region talking to producers of all sorts to understand their operations and the challenges they face delivering food to our tables.
VALOR, which stands for Virginia Agriculture Leaders Obtaining Results, is a two-year program that develops leaders within Virginia’s agricultural industries. Seventeen fellows, led by program director Megan Seibel, Ph.D., spent time in 12 different agriculture regions of the commonwealth, learning how farmers and producers in each area tackle what mother nature gives them along with how to make those struggles profitable. All the while, participants focus on building problem-solving, communication and critical thinking skills, keys to leading in any industry.
According to the program’s website, the mission is to ensure Virginia’s agricultural future “through a system of networking, collaborative decision-making and development of strong leaders.” The program addresses “social, political and economic issues on the local, state, national and international level.”
VALOR participant Stephanie Kitchen, a legislative specialist with Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, values the program for the opportunity to “see more of Virginia and gain more knowledge” about what farmers face. She plans to use this new-found knowledge when “speaking on behalf of our members.”
The group spent four days in the Northern Neck, beginning September 19 with a tour of Omega Protein in Reedville. Senior director of refined oils Jane Crowther, and general manager Andy Hall, presented an overall view of the company’s multi-national business, their method of spotting their catch—menhaden—from the air and the fleet of fishermen who haul them in. Their presentation was followed by a question and answer session regarding compliance with government regulations, tariffs, shipping internationally and managing seasonality in a business.
That evening, Ronnie Gill, chief lending officer with Colonial Farm Credit, hosted the group for a dinner at the Northern Neck Farm Museum near Horse Head. There, the group was joined by farmer PJ Haynie, who talked about the value of building and utilizing networks. He thanked the group “for stopping to talk to farmers” and urged them to “share our story.”
Also joining the discussion, Bob Pittman, former superintendent of Virginia Tech’s Eastern Virginia Agricultural Research and Extension Center, shared both historical and current perspectives on farming and how geography has shaped what food is produced in the Northern Neck.
Emily Wong, associate director of development for the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech, found the discussion meaningful, even for someone not directly in the ag business.
“I’m learning more about the industry” and “while the products that farmers may grow are diverse, the challenges they face are very similar,” she said. Conversations like the ones at the farm museum create meaningful dialogue “instead of listening to needs from afar,” added Wong.
On day two, the group toured Rappahannock Oyster Company in Topping. Patrick Oliver, director of farms, began by sharing the story of the company and its fourth generation of owners, cousins Ryan and Travis Croxton, and how farming oysters has not only improved the health of wild oysters but has helped clean the waters too.
Oliver walked the group through the entire farming operation, from seed oyster to harvest, all managed from the docks at the mouth of Locklies Creek, off the Rappahannock River. The company now has two other oyster operations, one in Yorktown, the other on the Eastern Shore, each with an oyster whose flavor is distinctive to the water they grow in.
The group later visited the Northern Neck Technical Center (NNTC) in Warsaw to discuss its horticulture program with instructor Tammy Cole as well as break for lunch which was provided by the center’s culinary arts program and hosted by Faye Hundley, chairman of the Virginia Farm Bureau women’s committee. Then it was off to Garner’s Produce, also in Warsaw, to meet with owners Dana and Bernard Boyle.
The group closed out their tour with a two-day visit to Tangier and Port Isobel Islands before heading back to Blacksburg.
The variety of agriculture, aquaculture and the visit to the NNTC were part of Seibel’s plan to fit in a diversity of voices, “the Chesapeake Bay and environmental issues,” and different sized operations from Omega, “who plays a big part in their industry” to newer, smaller, but growing operations. Seibel added that the NNTC visit was designed to help people “understand career- and technical-based learning that is not college.”