State Of The Economy’ Focuses On Agriculture

June 26, 2024

By LEE ZION Daily News-Record

Jun 2, 2024

The business meeting was held at a charming inn about a dozen miles east of Harrisonburg, showcasing the gorgeous rural atmosphere that was the focus of the discussion.

“State of the Economy,” was presented Thursday by the Harrisonburg – Rockingham Chamber of Commerce and Sentara, along with several event sponsors. This was the first time the main topic was agriculture, said Scott Lilly, program manager for Farm Credit Express/Leasing, one of the people who spoke at the event.

Rockingham County is the No. 1 agricultural county in Virginia — twice as big as the second-place Augusta County.

Shenandoah and Page County are No. 3 and No. 4. So the top four counties in Virginia are all contiguous.

Rockingham is also No. 19 agricultural county in the entire United States.

Lilly said the county is blessed to have multiple sources of income, and different types of employment, all of which makes Rockingham more resilient and recession-proof.

Brian Shull, director of Economic Development for the city of Harrisonburg, echoed that theme. He noted that the state of Virginia is hovering at 2.9 percent unemployment. As far as Harrisonburg, Shull cited statistics released the day before, which stated that unemployment locally had fallen to 2.2 percent — about where unemployment was prior to the outbreak of COVID-19.

“We’re at the highest employment we’ve ever been, city and county together,” he said.    

This comes primarily due to agriculture, Shull cited the organic chicken company Farmer Focus, which started up in 2014 and took over the shuttered Pilgrim’s Pride facility. It grew and needed to expand, building a new facility in 2021 at $64 million. The company has continued to grow and committed last year to a $17.8 million expansion.

Now, that company has 1,200 jobs.

“[That’s] 1,200 jobs for a company that just started 10 years ago. They’re our largest private-sector employer in the city,” Shull said.

Then there are the “ancillary” services in city limits, such as hatcheries and large animal veterinary services.

Kerry Foods bought the old Ariake building in 2018, and in April, it committed to an $8.4 million expansion. That shows they’re committed to Harrisonburg for the long term. T&E Meats, the only meat processor in city limits, is also looking to expand, Shull said.

Yet another sign of success is Gü Desserts, which makes single-serving desserts at Costco stores up and down the East Coast. These are packaged here in Harrisonburg, he said.

Sage Bird Ciderworks got a grant to set up, and now it has an active brick-and-mortar facility just north of downtown Harrisonburg.

“We’re very proud to be entwined with Rockingham County and Shenandoah Valley,” he said.

Casey Armstrong, assistant county administrator, said Rockingham County has 191,580 acres dedicated to agriculture in the county. The total value of their products is $1.2 billion, he said.

“That’s something that we’re very proud of, and something that the Board of Supervisors keeps constant in their decision making process. Always the preservation of agriculture,” he said.

The county recently acted to reduce its agriculture machinery tax for 44 to 33 cents. There is a possibility, sometime in the future, that this tax will be eliminated entirely, Armstrong said.

The county has also voted to increase its Ag-Forestal Districts. There are now nine of them, totaling 22,000 acres. This agreement among rural landowners helps keep land in agriculture, he said.

Armstrong also cited various projects serving agriculture. The Interchange Cold-Storage facility near Mount Crawford was announced in 2019 and has created 88 agriculture jobs. Also, the Veronesi meat company opened in 2023 and will create 150 jobs in the county, processing 6,000 hogs a week to make salami and prosciutto.

“This also goes to further diversify our agriculture economy,” he said.

Liebherr, a German company, is also investing in Rockingham County. Their facility will take waste products from making beer and turn it into animal feed.

“This is a really cool project — kind of reusing that industrial waste, and we’re very excited about it. This will be the first U.S. location of this company, as well,” he said.

The project will create 35 new jobs.

Yet another international company coming in is Premier Foods. This Turkish company makes dairy products, including a drink popular in Turkey called ayran.

“It’s kind of a mixture of yogurt and milk. It’s a traditional cultural Turkish beverage; it goes with every meal.”

This facility will employ 20 people. Originally, the company wanted to set up shop elsewhere in the state. But when the project managers found out the milk would be sourced from Rockingham County, they decided to “eliminate the middle man” and come here.

Armstrong also touted the county’s Comprehensive Plan, which will regulate where development is allowed in the county.

Rockingham County is in the middle of updating its Comprehensive Plan. The final product will be presented to the public in July, he said.