Virginia looks to replace former coal industry with ag
By JONATHAN CRIBBS
(Nov. 14, 2017) LEBANON, Va. — What’s the best way to help southwestern Virginia manage the decline of its once-mighty coal industry?
Double-down on agriculture, a recently released report said.
The region must develop new agricultural business opportunities for locals, lure large-scale ag businesses from outside the region and provide more assistance for existing ag-related businesses, according to a new strategic plan released late last month from the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority and Virginia Tech.
“History has taught us that while one product or crop might be good for a short time, in order to achieve true sustained economic prosperity, a region needs to both play to its strengths, and also diversify,” the report said. “The existing agricultural assets in the [southwest] region, together with the willingness to work together to grow agriculture, is a solid foundation on which to build.”
The strategic plan, created over a year with input from more than 40 regional political and agricultural officials, is designed to help ease the region’s struggles with a rapidly declining coal industry.
Three decades ago, 90 percent of all employment in southwest Virginia was somehow connected to the industry, said Lonzo Lester Jr., Russell County administrator.
Now, only 18 to 20 percent of regional employment is coal-related, he said.
The state produced more than 45 million short tons of coal in 1990, according to state data.
In 2015, it mined less than 15 million.
That decline has cost the state billions of dollars in economic value, and it’s fueled a host of growing problems across southwestern Virginia, including population declines and rising rates of drug addiction.
Some of the plan’s recommendations deal with networking and support, including the creation of an advisory committee with representatives from across the ag industry.
The plan demands that marketing efforts, such as a “Rooted in Appalachia” brand, are boosted, including the hiring of a new marketing point person.
The plan also suggests a reorientation of the region’s educational system. Local community colleges should alter their curriculums to include a focus on agriculture. They should create credited and non-credit courses for beginning farmers and ranchers looking to get into the industry, and curriculum changes should also be expanded to primary, middle and high school classes.
The region should also assist existing farmers and ranchers by providing financial support for those seeking national, state and regional certifications and branding.
Funding should be available to incentivize niche and specialty crop production, and livestock producers should be connected with value-added processors and businesses throughout the region.
Meat processing is also an important part of the industry’s future in Virginia, the plan said.
It demands a feasibility study for a processing plant in the southwestern region, and suggests that the region’s cattle industry organize around grass-fed operations.
Beef production is a particularly bright spot for the region as it brought in $53 million from 2,140 farms in 2012, the plan said.
Cattle and calf inventory grew by 17 percent between 2007 and 2012.
“We’re definitely going to move fast and hard on trying to implement a meat packing plant,” said David Eaton, vice-chairman of the Russell County Board of Supervisors. “We’re already a step ahead on that.”
The plan also said the region needs to develop cooperatives around key niche areas, including goats and sheep, wine and beer industry inputs (grapes, barley, hops), medicinal roots and herbs and, again, grass-finished beef. It also suggests mini-grants to support marketing and infrastructural work in those areas.
Agriculture should also take advantage of old strip-mining sites that have sat unused for years if not decades.
Studies have shown that those lands can be used successfully for agricultural enterprises, including greenhouses, grazing fields or orchards.
“The region has available space in established industrial sites, a unique regional asset in reclaimed coal mine land, and workforce with the skills needed for food and beverage manufacturing,” the report said.
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