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Harvesting New Ideas in Peanut Country

President Tom Barkin sits with others to discuss at the roundtable

Harvesting New Ideas in Peanut Country

Nestled in the Southeastern portion of Virginia lies a hidden gem rich in agricultural heritage: Peanut Country. From quaint storefronts offering a variety of gourmet peanuts to sprawling farms where generations have perfected their craft, this area has solidified its spot as an important part of Virginia’s agricultural economy thanks to its continued commitment to one of America’s favorite legumes.

But as our Community Conversations team learned on a recent trip to Southeastern Virginia, the pull between maintaining a rural, small town feel and embracing the potential benefits of urbanization hangs in the balance. On this trip, the team experienced two very different Peanut Countries, one working to make a comeback, and one working to preserve its rural identity amidst an appetite to expand.

During this trip, Richmond Fed President Tom Barkin was joined by Regional Executive Renee Haltom and Community Development Manager Jarrod Elwell to better understand the strengths and challenges of these two very different Southeastern Virginia communities.

Greensville County and Emporia: Reversing Historic Disinvestment

Formerly a booming town at the crossroads of I95 and Route 58 toward the western end of Virginia’s Peanut Country, Emporia has felt the effects of decades of historic disinvestment and, ironically, disconnection from the rest of the Commonwealth. The city is undergoing a transformation fueled by grassroots efforts and strategic partnerships.

“Leadership of the City of Emporia and Greensville County are collaborating in unprecedented ways to increase the supply of quality housing, improve the district’s schools, recruit jobs with livable wages, improve the area’s infrastructure, and increase visitation and tourism,” recalls Elwell after a recent visit. In fact, the day before our team arrived, Emporia announced an exciting new partnership to create a new sports and events arena in downtown Emporia.

Emporia and Greensville County have also been making major strides in improving their schools. In 2023, the Virginia Board of Education recognized Greensville Elementary and Belfield Elementary with the Continuous Improvement Award as part of the state’s Exemplar Performance Awards.

A pivotal collaboration with Southside Community Development and Housing Corporation (SCDHC), the oldest continuously Black-led community development corporation in Virginia, signifies a beacon of hope for Emporia. Together, the city and the SCDHC are spearheading a mixed-income housing initiative complemented by comprehensive support services ranging from rental and pre-purchase counseling to foreclosure prevention, workforce development training and homeownership opportunities. SCDHC was recently awarded a performance contract through the Fannie Mae Sustainable Communities Innovation Challenge to help advance their work in Emporia.

Virginia Peanuts

Western Tidewater: Balancing Rural and Urban Dynamics

As our team traveled further east, they entered the emerging Western Tidewater region, which includes the cities of Suffolk and Franklin and the counties of Southampton and Isle of Wight. Situated within easy reach of major urban centers like Norfolk and Virginia Beach — and containing their own urban hotspots as well — these areas enjoy advantages many rural areas lack, such as proximity to ports, universal broadband and being part of an enterprise zone that enables localities to combine projects for state incentives that benefit the entire region.

Amidst these modern conveniences, the area’s agricultural roots run deep. The region is home to several peanut companies, as well as growers of the famed Virginia peanut and other crops.

Therein lies the challenge: How can the Western Tidewater region harness the benefits of urban connectivity while also safeguarding the rich agricultural legacy that defines its identity?

“Whether the conversation is about housing or industrial development, like warehouses or solar, there are mixed feelings among the residents about development. Competing visions can complicate efforts to diversify a region for an economically sustainable future,” reflected Haltom. “Yet, we’ve found this is a natural stage in the development of rural localities on the cusp of urban overflow. And like other communities making progress, the leaders in Western Tidewater are bridging the gap with strategic visioning processes fueled by community engagement.”

What Comes Next: A Tale of Two Peanut Countries

The regions within Peanut Country are at a crossroads faced by many rural communities: balancing the allure and challenges of development with sustainability and the desire to preserve a rural way of life. Emporia is leaning into revitalization and expansion, while localities further east are embracing development while preserving their agricultural identity. Both approaches reflect the complex relationship between progress and tradition, shaping the future trajectory of these rural communities.

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Jim Strader (804) 697-8956 (804) 332-0207 (mobile)