So long, fair Wes

Published 8:23 am Saturday, February 7, 2009

COURTLAND—If there has been one constant in his tenure as Southampton County extension agent, it has been dealing with change. Now Wes Alexander is going to make a transition of his own.

The 30-year Virginia Cooperative Extension veteran will retire effective March 1. It will be the end of an era, not only for the farmers he served, but the community he helped lead.

“He’s going to be hard, if not impossible, to replace,” said Newsoms farmer Jay Darden. “He’s been a tremendous asset to the county in so many ways.”

Alexander, 53, came to Southampton not long after graduating from Michigan State University. He first spent a couple of years managing a Malbon Brothers hog farm in Virginia Beach, then was hired as the swine specialist for the Extension office in Courtland. That was in 1978. He was 23, had to find Southampton County on a map, and was more than a little intimidated about moving to a rural Southern community.

“I grew up and was educated 900 miles north of here,” he recalls. “This was a big change. There’s a different culture here, with different names and different ways of doing things.” He credits one person in particular with helping ease the transition, Walter Young Jr., a Franklin area farmer and current vice chairman of the Southampton Board of Supervisors.

As Alexander grew more familiar with his surroundings, he began to have a new outlook about his job.

“It became a challenge,” he said. “It was my responsibility to take the research from the land grant university and apply it to the local community. That’s what I had to do to be successful in my mission.”

Sedley farmer Larry Whitley said Alexander worked hard to meet his goals.

“He was always able to adapt to meet the changing agricultural needs,” Whitley said. “He was the link between the farmers and the researchers and he was efficient. One thing about Wes, he would always get back to you. And he never minded getting on the farm and getting dirty.”

When Alexander came to the county, there were 240 hog farms in Southampton, making it the 60th largest pork-producing county in the U.S. Before long, however, market conditions led to increasing reliance upon large, corporate producers. Individual farmers found it difficult to compete. Today, there are less than a dozen hog growers in Southampton.

When Ernest Wrenn retired as the extension agent for row crop production, Alexander shifted gears, gradually focusing less on livestock and more on crops such as peanuts, corn and soybeans. By the late ‘80s he was responsible for all of the Courtland office’s agricultural programs.

Change was again in the wind, however.

“At that time, Southampton was the largest peanut-producing county in the country,” he said. “We had about 35,000 acres in peanuts. Last year we only had about 7,700 acres. That’s a significant difference. We’ve also experienced the re-emergence of cotton as a profitable crop.”

Cotton was historically an important commodity for local growers. In the first part of the 20th century, however, an insect known as the boll weevil nearly destroyed cotton production across the South. By the 1990s, the boll weevil had been eradicated and demand for cotton went up — just in time to offset the impact of the elimination of the government price support for peanuts in 2002.

“Now we’re a major cotton producer,” said Alexander. “Southampton grows about one-third of the cotton produced in Virginia. We’ve also seen an increase in the price for soybeans. We used to grow soybeans in the corners of fields, or on the poorest land. Now it’s our number-one crop. We had more than 30,000 acres in beans last year.”

The Courtland office has experienced personnel cutbacks over the years, too. Thankfully, increased reliance upon technology has helped Alexander and his staff meet the needs of the community.

“We didn’t have computers when I got here,” he said. “There were no copiers and, of course, no cell phones. But we’re more efficient now.”

There are half the farmers in Southampton now than when he arrived. Farming is less profitable per acre, but those still in the business use bigger, better equipment. While some agricultural land has been lost, the reduction has not been dramatic, and Southampton remains a rural, Southern community.

“The last part of my career has been the most rewarding,” Alexander said, “because the growers have confidence in me. That means the most.”

If farming were the whole story, Alexander certainly made an impact. But perhaps his greatest contribution has been to the community as a whole.

In 1979, still trying to learn his way around his new home, Alexander met with four others to brainstorm about ways to highlight the agricultural nature of the community. It was the genesis of the Franklin-Southampton County Fair, which each August draws thousands of visitors to the fairgrounds near Courtland.

The extension office was running horse shows, steer shows, 4-H summer workshops and even pig shows. Alexander, remembering the county fairs of his Midwestern youth, suggested something similar for Southampton. A single event would be easier to organize, he said, and more cost-effective. Their first effort, “Agri-Week ’80,” was a hit. The next year organizers incorporated and the fair has since grown from a two-day, $2,000 event to five days with a budget of more than $100,000.

Alexander served 10 years as fair board president. He’s also been a member of the Courtland Ruritans for more than 25 years, serving several terms as president and for a while was zone governor. He attended Courtland Methodist Church ever since he came to the county, teaching Sunday School for 25 years and serving as administrative board chairman. And don’t forget the Boy Scouts. He was the assistant Scoutmaster for Courtland’s Troop 211, serving six years as the Scouts’ district chairman.

“Wes has always been very instrumental in taking a lead role and fulfilling it,” said Young, thinking back to those years when he helped an outsider find a home in Southampton. “Whatever he was active in, he gave 100 percent.”

Retirement will not lead to many idle hours, he said. He moved to Emporia not long ago, and has been restoring his home there and another in Courtland.

“I’ll take some time to rest,” he said, “but I plan on travelling a lot the next several years with my friend, Cyndi. I want to go to China, India and Brazil. They are three of the biggest agriculture-producing countries in the world.”

Asked how he hopes to be remembered in the community he called home for so long, he said, “I don’t believe in legacies. My philosophy was to get as much satisfaction from working with the small, limited-resource farmer as I did working with the bigger farmers.

“I just wanted to do the best job I could. I went to sleep each night at 10 because I was tired. That was the most rewarding thing to me.”

Faced with funding shortages, Virginia Tech has no plans for an immediate replacement for Alexander. A hiring freeze is in effect, he said, but the office will stay open. Unit Administrative Assistant Teisha Evans will man the front desk, while 4-H Agent Erika Bonnet attends to her regular duties.

In the meantime, the programs he put in place will continue to benefit Southampton County.

“He’s done it all,” said Darden. “From recycling our pesticide containers and used oil to the lives he touched through the 4-H program, Wes has gone above and beyond. We’re going to miss him.”