Standing tall on all legs

Published 8:22 am Wednesday, November 18, 2009

I attended the town meeting on Oct. 28 at the Paul D. Camp Workforce Development Center about the Franklin mill closing, but since I am not an International Paper employee, I did not want to “steal any thunder” from the folks who really needed to listen and vent.

But I do want to follow up with a few thoughts.

First, as I see it, the economy of Franklin and the surrounding region rested on a “three legged stool” — the paper mill, local businesses and local agriculture. Now, one of these critical legs is going to be sawed off.

At the meeting we saw an incredible array of agencies — city, county, state and federal — and talent that will be brought to bear in the coming months to begin the transition to new employment opportunities for the many who will soon lose their jobs.

Another point of view was presented by Joe Pascucci in his very credible and heartfelt statement about the need to also focus support on the second economic leg — local businesses. There was only one mention that I heard about the third leg of agriculture.

I have devoted my career to working with growers throughout much of the Commonwealth to improve their farming operations, their bottom line, and ultimately, their sustainability. And if you think that the agriculture “leg” is strong, you haven’t been paying attention. Many of our local farmers and farm families are struggling.

When I came to Franklin 21 years ago, peanuts were grown on 90,000 to 100,000 acres and provided a stable income base for many farm families. The loss of all price-support programs and the rising costs of production have caused an implosion. Today only about 12,000 acres are planted, and there may be further declines.

The cotton crop that you see in many fields around the area is getting harder to justify. Cotton growers base their profit on the number of pounds of lint produced on an acre. With today’s high production costs and low cotton prices, fields have to produce very high lint yields to exceed the break-even point. For example, when cotton first came back to Southeast Virginia in the late 1980s, a bag of seed cost $80 to $90. Now growers have to pay over $400 for a bag, along with ever increasing costs for fertilizer, diesel fuel and the many other critical inputs.

Also, because of our sandy, drought-prone soils, field corn is almost a losing proposition before you plant the seed.

It’s a long story, but you get the picture. As we struggle to put the economy of this region back on track, our agricultural industry needs to be part of the “fixing” process. If we want to maintain this vital third economic leg, our local, state and federal leaders need to do whatever they can to push for changes that bring economic stability back into agriculture.

It also struck me at the meeting that another one of our major community constituencies was not heard from — the folks who are neither IP employees, nor directly connected to a local business. There are many of us in the community. We love Franklin and have benefited in many, many ways from our time in this town. When the Hurricane Floyd and Hurricane Isabel disasters occurred, the destruction was immediate and tangible — you could see it. Many of us rallied with what resources we could to give our time, money and energy to help rebuild. From making coffee and sandwiches to working hours, even days doing hard, sweaty, filthy work, many found a way to give. This disaster is so different. This is quite possibly a larger disaster than has ever occurred, but we can’t “see” it, at least not immediately. We are struggling to know how we can help. Don’t forget us. Help us find ways to serve.

And finally, Mayor Jim Councill said Franklin’s strength lies in its people and the quality of life it has and does provide.

If I were trying to “sell” Franklin, I would promote many positive features. The weather is almost perfect with four distinct seasons, but none too severe. It is close to almost anything a person could want to do from historic sites, to cultural events, to the seashore, the mountains, military bases, and shopping. And, one of the most important features — Franklin is nestled in a truly rural setting near beautiful farmlands, forests and rivers. Our well-run and maintained farms have a unique beauty. After a hectic day or week, a quiet drive in the country soothes the soul. Franklin and the surrounding area also provide a vital community of civic organizations, clubs, churches and schools.

One of Franklin’s best features is the convenience and diversity of our local stores and businesses. Where can you leave the house, do all your errands, and be back in an hour, not ever having had to fight a dreadful traffic snarl? Further, where can you buy your vehicle, have it serviced and maintained, buy your groceries and pharmaceuticals, go out for a meal, go to the physician, the library — all while patronizing folks you know and trust? We need to protect and support our local businesses and enable new ones to establish and succeed.

Yes, our hearts and daily prayers go out to all those folks impacted by the loss of the mill. We are here to help in any way we can. And, as we plan and build for the future, we must address all three “legs” of our economic base to guarantee that this beautiful city, and our county farms and neighbors, will prosper and thrive.