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Forum on the Future of Agriculture in Southeast Virginia

Farm Business Management Update, October/November 2003

By Mike Roberts

As a stone tossed into a still pool, so has the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 (FSRIA) caused ripples throughout the economy of southeastern Virginia. Some of those ripples have become virtual tidal waves while others remain barely noticeable. However, what seems insignificant now may become a strong undertow if action plans are not developed to deal with the change.

The percent quota program, based on acres or pounds of quota for a specific farm, had been in place since 1937, with above-world-market prices guaranteed by USDA on peanuts produced under quota. FSRIA eliminated the peanut program as it was known and replaced it with a commodity based market structure more sensitive to world market forces. This change created an economic tidal wave that threatens the very fabric of rural southeastern Virginia, a land as American as mom, baseball, and apple pie.

The Common Ground Forum for the Future of Agriculture in Southeast Virginia (The Forum) was held on August 28, 2003 for multiple stakeholders of this area of the state. Sixty-seven participants representing many different viewpoints attended The Forum. Stakeholders included farmers, lenders, vendors (those providing agribusiness inputs to the industry), and those concerned with 'smart-growth' land use issues. Other stakeholders included representatives of agencies such as the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Virginia Department of Forestry, the USDA-Farm Services Agency, as well as local, state, and federal officials.

The Forum was designed as a consensus building meeting working to provide stakeholders a place to (1) express their views of their current economic situation, (2) listen to the views of other stakeholders, (3) form a list of possible solution options that could begin to energize the southeast Virginia economy, and (4) identify a group of key people representing a cross section of southeast Virginia that would work together to prioritize and energize solution options identified by the larger group. Results far exceeded expectations.

A diverse group of twenty-five attendees was identified to take the work further. This group represented points of view spanning all stakeholders. A meeting was scheduled and held on September 10, at the Tidewater Agricultural Research Extension Center in Holland, Virginia. The goal of the meeting was to put "shoe leather" to workable solutions as they were identified from The Forum two weeks earlier.

At the September 10 meeting, four major categories of concern were identified. They were (1) political action, (2) industry cooperation, (3) production research, and (4) farmland preservation. The large group self-selected into four smaller groups to work on prioritizing the relevant short-term and long-term issues. Working together again as a large body, the group distilled and prioritized the most pressing issues and strategies from those more long-term. Finally, the group selected four Working Groups to begin refining viable action plans that could both enable and energize a robust southeast Virginia economy.

Outcomes from this meeting were spectacular! Attending farmers, peanut processors, lenders, vendors, agency personnel, and officials are now encouraged for a future in which they may work alongside one another to seek win/win solutions. Innovative educational opportunities were identified as playing a key role in any action plan. A meeting will be scheduled for early December to reconvene the Working Groups to initiate definite action-plan strategies that are both promising and positive.

Storms of life can create significant emotional events for us. When bad things happen, we can consider them challenges and opportunities or wring our hands in despair. We can become bitter or better. Challenges are more likely to become opportunities if people are willing to talk and work together. I think that southeast Virginia just made up its mind to become better.

For further information on future meetings of The Forum, contact Mike Roberts at (804) 733-2686 or All are welcome to attend.

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