13 Generations on the Land

I sat down with a farmer and cattleman who is the 13th generation to own the family farm in Appomattox. His father still runs the place, as he says, "taking out loans and buying parts", and has successfully steered the transition from tobacco to livestock. The family has leased grazing land in addition to the 500 acres they have owned for centuries. Beef is an 8-billion-dollar industry in Virginia and the 5th District has the third largest cattle business in the state. As cattle have to eat, the biggest crop in Virginia is grass. There is a lot of discussion about what to do with old tobacco farms Southside and this family's move into cattle is a success story that speaks to both the family's desire to keep the land in agriculture and clear thinking about a thriving market. The farmer laments politicians' lack of interest in cattle. One former Congressman asked him, "Why should I care about cows?" and our current Congressman has proved less than interested in one of the biggest businesses in the district. "I can't get in to see him. We cattlemen are a pretty conservative group and yet his door is closed to us."

The issues of transition and jobs in the southern part of the district led me to the Virginia Technical Institute (VTI) in Altavista, Campbell County. My friend Mark Powers, a highly skilled mechanic at the Goodyear plant in Danville, teaches there. VTI teaches trainees critical infrastructure skills. As Kyle Goldsmith, the Dean of Instruction at VTI says, "Our infrastructure in this country is collapsing. The average age of construction workers in America is 57 years old. We are losing the trade skills handed down from a previous generation. We have to train a new generation. They will be able to jump into leadership roles." 

I watched the welders, mechanics, electricians, pipe fitters, plumbers, and carpenters work. There are 295 trainees and 95 percent of them graduate with jobs that pay at least $14 an hour, some much more. "There is a plethora of jobs here for these trainees. I'm excited to tell people who live in this region they don't need to go anywhere. They can come right here to get the skills they need. We can't fill the jobs fast enough," says Kyle. "I've had industries tell me 'don't bring any more industries here because we can't find the people we need.'" VTI has worked hard to introduce high school students to their program. At first the high schools were reluctant. "They want to send their students to college." But now high school classes "come by the busload" to hear what VTI trainers have to say. This is a program supported by business, both local and national, and we need to expand it.

I then traveled to Washington to moderate a panel for UNICEF on the crisis of world hunger. Because of my background as a journalist covering international affairs, I have a keen interest in tackling these issues. The fact is, 815 million people wake up desperately hungry every morning. That is two and a half times the population of the United States. According to UNICEF, progress in battling chronic malnutrition has come to a halt, and violent conflict, which exacerbates the problem, is at an all-time high. Hunger is often man-made. 

The active role our foreign service has played to negotiate access to dying populations, many of them children, is now diminished. With the current administration, diplomats and specialist are leaving the State Department in droves. This bleeding of talent and knowledge of the world must be reversed if we are to regain our stature as a force for good. If we do not act to open ports in Yemen, for example, where the Saudis are bombing with the help of US ordinance and targeting, literally millions will die. Eleven million children need urgent humanitarian assistance. UN leaders said last week: "This is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world." Cholera is on the rise. Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy said, "This humanitarian catastrophe-this caused in part by the actions of the United States. The bombing campaign that has caused the cholera outbreak could not happen without us." We clearly need more leadership in Congress to address our role there, ask hard questions, and demand change.

Back in the district, I visited Sexual Assault Resource Agency (SARA) in Charlottesville, an organization devoted to another crisis, the growing incidents of rape and domestic violence against women and children. They respond to emergency calls and also run survivor support groups for women and teens. They go into the schools to talk to students. They do outreach in public housing. It is heartening to see such dedication at home to our own victims of violence.


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