Developing the Ag Cluster in Southwest Virginia

Emory & Henry College engaged Creative EDC to study how their new School of Business can drive growth in the agriculture sector in Southwest Virginia and become a hub of innovation. The college has long been a strategic partner of economic development organizations, local governments, nonprofits, and businesses. They want to leverage Emory & Henry’s assets and contributions to the region, and network of partners, to drive growth in the ag sector.

Goals and strategies to advance the ag innovation hub were developed with input from business, agencies that support the industry, and regional partners in economic development. Difficulty attracting and retaining labor, start-up costs, ongoing education and training, succession planning, and capturing more value in the supply chain were topics often noted in conversations. In addition to qualitative input from the industry and region, an ag cluster analysis was performed to see how the industry is growing and changing from a data perspective. Granular county-level and industry-specific level data were used to determine the assets within Smyth and Washington Counties and compare those assets with the surrounding counties. The data not only confirmed what industry leaders said, it provided additional insights into opportunities for innovative cluster development. Regional job growth, high location quotient, and a strong value-added food economy all point to growth opportunities. At the same time, the area faces challenges in declining local jobs, low wages, and an aging workforce.

The goals to advance an ag innovation hub in Southwest Virginia address the three legs of the cluster development stool – talent, innovation, and supply chain development. “Increase Student Engagement in the Ag Industry” and “Expand Education and Training for Ag Businesses” are two goals that address the talent leg of the stool. The “Advance the Cluster Through Research” goal addresses innovation and supply chain development. A fourth goal of “Increase Awareness of the Industry, Businesses, and Opportunities in SWVA” supports overall development of the ag cluster. 

Emory & Henry College and the School of Business are well positioned to implement strategies under each goal. Student engagement and outreach has long been a hallmark of the college. Through applied research, the college supports the implementation of new innovations and technologies in a wide range of sectors. The fourth goal is the core work of Emory & Henry – education and training. By leveraging strategic partners, the college can expand its outreach to the ag industry, providing training on new market viability, marketing, and business planning.

The implementation plan to develop the Agriculture Innovation Hubin Southwest Virginia includes a coalition of partners – Emory & Henry, Appalachia Sustainable Development, Virginia Highlands Small Business Incubator, Southwest Virginia Cultural Center, Project Glade, and Virginia Cooperative Extension. Working together, this coalition will continue to foster innovations to support development of the ag industry in Southwest Virginia.

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