In 1612, John Rolfe introduced a variety of tobacco from the West Indies to Virginia, the same variety that would flourish as a commercial commodity for the colonists. Today, tobacco remains an important crop for the commonwealth, generating an estimated $80 million in farm gate value each year.

The Virginia Tech Southern Piedmont Agricultural Research and Extension Center (AREC), located in Blackstone, Virginia, is working to ensure that the state’s tobacco crop and producers continue to thrive. The AREC is doing so with help from long-time partner, Altria Group, parent company to Philip Morris USA and several other tobacco operating companies. Altria recently awarded more than $600,000 to AREC.

“We are interested in helping growers succeed,” said Brittany Irving, an agronomist with Altria. “We want growers to produce the best crop they can and to help address the challenges they face. The AREC staff does a great job of providing tobacco research and outreach to growers.”

Altria’s gift enables the AREC to expand its research capabilities by improving and expanding the station’s facilities, covering the purchase and renovation of a large warehouse adjacent to the center.

“We have been talking with our industry partners and stakeholders about some of the needs of the station,” said Carol Wilkinson, director of the Southern Piedmont AREC. “One of those needs is a grinding and drying facility. We grow tobacco, forages, and other crops, and must grind them in order to perform chemical analyses. We currently do this in our parking lot, which makes this work dependent on the weather.”

When a metal warehouse across the road became available for sale, the AREC’s tobacco agronomist, David Reed ’84, ’87, ’90 (agronomy and integrated pest management, entomology) consulted Irving to see if Southern Piedmont and Altria could partner to develop a grinding and drying facility.

“We have a long-standing relationship with Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and with the Southern Piedmont AREC,” said Irving. “The station has had space constraints for some time. This new facility allows them to process samples indoors, and gives the staff flexibility and space for equipment. They will be able to continue conducting research that helps the tobacco industry.”

Wilkinson also hopes to move the AREC’s mechanical shop to the warehouse, allowing staff members to perform maintenance and welding on tractors and other machinery. In addition, 18 small-scale curing barns will be installed in the new facility.

The closing is scheduled for this month, after which contractors will begin electrical upgrades and other renovations in order to have the facility ready this summer.

The AREC director has collaborated with Altria for the duration of her career at Virginia Tech and is confident and inspired about the vital role the company and other industry partners continue to play in helping Southern Piedmont realize its mission.

“Our relationship is invaluable to the success of our research and Extension programs at Southern Piedmont, and beneficial to all aspects of our work — helping producers, Virginia Tech, the Southern Piedmont, and the commonwealth,” she said.

External funding from industry is also essential to training the next generation of employees and leaders for the agricultural science industries.

“Altria and other partners make it possible for us to provide experiential learning opportunities for undergraduate students and assistantships to employ graduate students. The ARECs provide a unique opportunity for all students to learn about and work in fully integrated research and Extension programs,” said Wilkinson.

Wilkinson and Irving also agree that helping growers succeed is fundamental to their partnership.

“Training students is essential to developing research breakthroughs that our producers can use,” Wilkinson said. “We develop research-based information so growers can be profitable and environmentally sound. This investment will help us do that.”

The Southern Piedmont AREC conducts strong commodity-oriented research and Extension programs to provide information and technology to the agricultural industry. Programs enhance the economic viability and environmental stewardship of tobacco, forage crops, beef cattle, small fruits, and other field and specialty crops.

“We are happy that Altria could help when help was needed,” said Irving. “Hopefully, this support will assist the AREC staff in continuing their work for years to come.”

Written by Amy Painter