Ninth District Congressman Morgan Griffith visited Carroll County High School on Friday to get a first-hand look at the nation’s first STEM Lab for Agriculture.
Griffith said Carroll students were blessed to have such a state-of-the art facility. He left Hillsville impressed with what he saw Friday.
“I thought the kids were great and I thought the lab was fantastic. I think it is just a great, great opportunity for Carroll County,” Griffith said. “It’s not only groundbreaking, it’s one of those factors you may not be able to put your finger on, but my guess is we will get the attention in Carroll County of some of the national folks. And what happens is somewhere down the road another company comes in and recognizes Carroll County is one of the leaders in the country. Somebody opening a particular type of greenhouse or other type of facility in this field, I have to believe it helps Carroll County land that type of prospect.”
Griffith heard presentations Friday from Carroll County Administrator Gary Larrowe, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Strader Blankenship, and CCHS Ag teacher Randy Webb.
“We have a long history of agriculture in this community as well as Southwest Virginia. One of the things that was really key was in 1917 in the Smith-Hughes Act, Carroll County was the first county in the nation to actually teach agriculture in a K-12 setting,” Larrowe told Griffith. “This is the first STEM Lab for Agriculture as well, so it is history repeating itself in some ways and we are very proud of that fact.”
In thinking of ways of supporting economic development in Carroll, Larrowe said a focus needs to be on agriculture as an economic sector. He mentioned Moir Beamer’s Virginia Produce facility that recently expanded in the Carroll County Industrial Park, which was partially funded through federal ag and forestry development funds. Part of those funds had to do with food safety issues, an area where Carroll leads the state.
“There are more folks in Carroll County certified in food safety than the rest of the Commonwealth combined,” Larrowe said. “And the reason is because you’ve got the local producers out here in the communities producing the ag products that are being sold through the Southwest Virginia Farmers’ Market.”
With certifications in mind, he said the county needed to have a place to help it pedigree its land and crops. Storing that data and being food safety certified is essential to sell product to the Walmarts and chain stores of the world.
“It only takes a few chili and grape scares…so what we are trying to do is a preventative measure here, using students as a way to actually learn the processes and protocols to help set the standards for our local farmers to be the most productive and the highest-level food safety- producing community in the nation,” Larrowe said. “We would not turn down advanced manufacturing, but one of the things we play on is our history in ag. It’s something we have an interest in and it fits in very well in being able to produce scientists of the future or ag producers , or transfer the knowledge that can be gained here in the medical field or into other scientific fields.”
Gary said agriculture is one of the few economic development sectors where there is a place from someone to the lowest educational level to the highest. He pointed out that during the economic collapse of 2008, the ag industry didn’t collapse nearly as far as most sectors.
“We actually have a bit of a perfect storm here in Carroll County because now we have the STEM Lab, but we also have a working farm that the school system runs, and they actually sell to producers their crops,” Blankenship said. “And we have the Farmers’ Market and we have the Blue Ridge Crossroads Technical and Engineering Governor’s Academy.”
Larrowe feels embracing food safety adds value to Carroll crops, which in turns adds value to the community.
Webb told Griffith the new STEM Lab could handle up to 20 students at a time. It also includes a prep room as well as electronic equipment and portable units that allow students to work in the field at places such as Virginia Produce. The lab also includes 10 digital microscopes.
“If you remember back when you were in high school, the biology teacher had to make their way around to each individual microscope,” Webb said. “From here, we can point out and show the kids what exactly it is we want them to see and they can find it on their own microscope. It sort of helps the process.”
Webb added that faculty members from Virginia Tech’s biochemistry, ag and education departments would be coming down soon to help come up with a plan of science projects that could be done in the new lab.
“One other thing we added this year is a pre-engineering course. We have not had that before and I think that fits very well with what we’ve got here,” Blankenship said. “Also, we went to Virginia Tech and they helped us design this lab.”
Moir Beamer, President of Virginia Produce, said the lab could help train students to start a processing plant for farmers, something that has never been done locally, which could conceivably take fresh vegetables in the area to new levels. Carroll also has its own cannery, Blankenship added, add the lab could teach students how to go through the manufacturing process.
“It is literally tied to the ag program and how we can end up increasing that effort in this community. It is the largest sector we have as an economic engine, for all this community and Southwest Virginia in essence,” Larrowe said.
“The other beauty of it is some of them will graduate from us and will be able to go right into production,” Blankenship added. “Some of them will go on to Virginia Tech and UVa, but in the past they have gone on and left us. If we did this right, they will go there and be able to come back to make a living.”