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State and local officials pose in front of the sign announcing Brunswick County’s new produce packing and processing plant. Shown are Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bettina Rink, organic produce grower Jordan Brandon, Del. Roslyn Tyler, Gov. Ralph Northam, Brunswick County IDA business director Mike Dotti, Gloria Meny Weather-Woods, chair of the Brunswick County IDA, Alfreda Jarrett Reynolds, director of economic development for Brunswick County and Barbara Jarrett Harris, chair of the Brunswick County Board of Supervisors. Also present Thursday but not pictured was Alberta acting Mayor Rebecca Spengler. / September 29, 2021
Twelfth-generation farmer Jordan Brandon is a trailblazer. He and more than 20 farmers who make up the new Southern Virginia Vegetable Packing operation in Brunswick County are helping to transition southern Virginia farmers away from traditional crops such as tobacco in favor of growing organic produce.

On Thursday, Brandon stood with Gov. Ralph Northam and Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bettina Ring as the trio announced Brunswick County’s latest industry, a 45,000 square foot produce processing and packing facility. It will be built at the county’s 114-acre industrial park in Alberta just off I-85, at a cost of $4.2 million. The operation is estimated to bring 40 jobs to the area over the next few years.

Groundbreaking is expected to take place in the next few months.

Funding for the project will come, in part, from a $500,000 grant by the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission and a $400,000 Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund (AFID) Planning Grant. AFID monies can be used to fund innovative local efforts to assist agriculture- and forestry-based businesses, and encourage local governments and the ag/forestry community to work together on integrating these industries into their community’s overall economic development efforts.

Brandon’s Old Dominion Organic Farms, a member of Southern Virginia Vegetable Packing, will operate the facility. It is expected to process nearly $24 million in Virginia-grown vegetables, approximately 80 percent of which will be certified organic within its first three years of operation.

The new facility will support more than 22 farmers in Amelia, Brunswick, Dinwiddie, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, Prince George, and Surry counties during its first season.

Over the next five years, Southern Virginia Vegetable Packing expects to make more than $60 million in produce sales, with $42 million being returned directly to individual farmers. This coalition of farmers will also work with a newly formed non-profit to assist prospective farmers with growing organic crops and obtaining organic certification, so they, too, can participate in this expanding market.

“This is truly a public-private partnership,” said Ring, who commended Brandon for his vision helping local farmers to think “differently about the crops you grow.”

“There are many changes in the footprint across the Commonwealth and the tobacco farmers in the area are at a crossroads having to make decisions because it is not the same as the past,” said Ring. “Some have been bold, such as the road that Jordan Brandon and other members of the Southern Virginia Vegetable Packing facility took.

“They came together, thought differently about their future, and found new markets to change over [their farming] operations from tobacco to organic production. It’s huge. Embracing innovation and exploring new opportunities in agriculture is key to the growth and prosperity of rural communities,” said Ring.

Jordan said the idea to switch from tobacco farming to organic produce first came to him shortly after returning to the family farm in 2006. Brandon spent five years designing aerospace hardware for Raytheon Systems in the Washington, D.C. area after graduating from Virginia Military Institute and earning a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Virginia Tech.

A shrinking tobacco market had him rethinking the future of the family farm. Between 2001 and 2020 the price of tobacco fell more than $0.90 cents a pound and the number of acres produced fell from 63 million to 26 million pounds.

Brandon began to transition the farm, first to organic tobacco and row crops, and by 2015 to organic vegetables. He started with 20 acres of organic vegetables in 2015 and by 2021 had expanded the area to 500 acres, all certified organic.

He grows broccoli, cabbage tomatoes, cauliflower, green beans, beets, carrots, pumpkins, acorn squash, butternut squash, pumpkins, field corn, soybeans, and alfalfa. The company markets most of its organic produce through Parker Farms and Hollar & Greene Produce Compgan.

In addition to the vegetable acres located on Old Dominion Organic Farms in Dundas, Brandon said he and his team are currently farming an additional 1,700 acres in southern Virginia and northern North Carolina.

Brandon said he is the first of the last five generations of Brandons who has not grown tobacco. It was a family tradition begun in 1654 when his ancestors moved from the British Isles to the Nansemond area of Suffolk. The family eventually moved west, first relocating to Danville and then to Dundas, where Brandon continues to farm.

The decision to grow organic produce was obvious, Brandon said, once he realized that half of the U.S. population lived within a day’s drive from the farm and his organic produce could be on store shelves within 24 hours after coming from the field.

His entry into the world of organic farming has not been without its growing pains. Southern Virginia has not historically been known for commercial vegetable production. The lack of historical data on produce growing, combined with the lack of information on organic production, required him to develop his production techniques through trial and error.

While he has been able to make needed changes and improvements to his operations over the years, the one missing element to his organic operation was ready access to a large-scale packing and processing facility.

“Access to a facility that provides efficient packing, cooling, and distribution of vegetables for local farmers will create access to markets previously unavailable to them,” said Brandon. “This was the key component farmers were lacking to capitalize on the land, equipment, labor, and farming experience they already possess.”

Brandon hopes this new facility, coupled with the support provided by members of Southern Virginia Vegetable Packing, will encourage more farmers to enter a market. While challenging — vegetable farms are labor intensive, and fields must be free of chemical inputs for three years prior to harvest — the marker for organic vegetables is much easier to enter on a small and more inefficient scale.

Mike Dotti, business director of the Brunswick County Industrial Development Authority, worked with Alfreda Jarrett Reynolds, director of the Brunswick County Economic Development, and Ann Taylor Wright with the Southside Planning District Commission on the project. They collaborated closely with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and worked with the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission to secure the support of the Commonwealth.

The architectural and engineering work needed to move the project forward was financing in part with a $35,000 planning grant from the Governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund, awarded in June to Brunswick and Lunenburg counties. To assist the county in securing this project for Virginia, Governor Northam awarded a $400,000 Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Facility Grant to the Brunswick County Industrial Development Authority. It is the county’s first-ever Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development award.

The project is also supported by a $500,000 grant from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission.

“The Brunswick County Board of Supervisors is excited to see this project come to fruition as it capitalizes on our existing agricultural community, aligns with our Board Vision 2035 to create new business opportunities, and will result in more job creation for our citizens,” said Brunswick County Board of Supervisors Chair Barbara Jarratt Harris. “We look forward to a continued partnership with the Brunswick County Industrial Development Authority, the Brunswick County Agriculture Task Force, and other stakeholders to redefine our niche and help our agriculture industry thrive in new markets.”

The Southern Virginia Vegetable Packing facility is the culmination of work begun three years ago when the Brunswick County Industrial Development Authority convened its first Agricultural Task Force. “It was comprised of state and local leaders in agriculture, education, business, and economic development to leverage our farming heritage to create a new vision for development in the county,” said Industrial Development Authority of Brunswick Chair Gloria Menyweather-Woods. “This project is an outgrowth of that vision, and I sincerely thank the task force for their leadership. While there is still much to do, we know collaborative efforts like this offer us a pathway to continued success.”

“I am delighted that this project will draw on the farming expertise and experience of local folks in this effort to supply fresh, wholesome food to Virginians,” said state Sen. Frank Ruff.

“Supporting our local farmers and producers is every bit as important now as it has always been for our region,” said Del. Roslyn C. Tyler, a member of the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission. “This facility will enable local farms to reach new customers and pursue new wholesale opportunities that will increase profitability and help ensure that these farms remain operational for generations to come.

“This is a big win for agriculture in our region and I’m pleased the Commission chose to support this important project. I look forward to seeing construction get under way on this new facility as soon as possible.”

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Hope this will help Mr. Brandon pay the local vendors he owes money to for items he ordered in March 2021. Oh that is right the check is going out on Friday. Which Friday!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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