Virginia doesn’t need election maps to tell us that our urban areas are expanding while our rural areas continue to lose population. Population maps have predicted this trend and show that this shift will continue into the future. One of the reasons experts cite for rural population decline is the economic uncertainty experienced by people living in these communities.

This demographic change underscores the need to diversify our economy and to find ways that rural communities can thrive just as much as the urban ones. These don’t have to be mutually exclusive endeavors. An investment in one can be an investment for all.

Consider Virginia Tech’s development of a new Innovation Campus in Alexandria. This investment will not only prepare students for competitive high-tech jobs at companies like Amazon in Northern Virginia and the Washington, D.C. metro region. It will also will pay dividends in Virginia’s rural areas.

Virginia Tech recently helped launch a SmartFarm Innovation Network, which will capitalize on its interconnected network of 11 Agricultural Research and Extension Centers and 108 local Virginia Cooperative Extension offices through the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences on our Blacksburg main campus. This network will help farmers and the allied ag and food industries adopt new technologies and modify their practices so they can thrive in this new digital-driven and data-informed world.

This means the continued adoption of technologies including:

  • high-tech precision agriculture equipment that allows farmers to optimize yields and quality of crops and livestock products while protecting and improving the environment;
  • technology that allows food to be traced more easily to its sites of origin and processing;
  • innovative processing and packaging technologies that reduce food waste between the farm and the plate;
  • and technologies and practices that create a food production system that is resilient to the changing climate.

Adoption of these technologies also demands new skills and offers students opportunities to be part of a rapidly changing workforce. Among those skills is the ability to analyze the large amount of data collected by new digital technologies so that the full benefits of the advancements can be realized, while also keeping cyberbiosecurity in check.

This digital agriculture and food movement cannot continue in rural communities without the computer scientists, software engineers and data scientists of urban regions. The bottom line is that Virginia’s diverse agricultural and food industry is changing. Investments are needed so both urban and rural regions of the commonwealth will rise together.

What better way to make Virginia a destination for top talent, businesses and families than by stimulating growth in both the urban and rural sectors of the commonwealth? Setting up all of our communities for success can make this a reality.

Given the diversity of agricultural products in Virginia, agriculture and forestry can continue to remain the largest private economic engine of the commonwealth. Today, agriculture and forestry’s breadth creates an annual economic impact of $92 billion and more than 334,000 jobs in Virginia. Moreover, the Port of Virginia offers an opportunity for the commonwealth to increase its exports of agricultural commodities well beyond the current $3 billion, which would not only help drive the state’s economy but also put Virginia on the map as a leader in addressing global food security.

We need to invest now in people, infrastructure, broadband and technology for a strong agricultural industry. We especially need to invest in the youth of today who will help lead us through this new digital ag and food revolution.

How much more can Virginia agriculture grow when we add new crops, new jobs, new technologies and new skills to the mix, and when rural and urban communities depend upon each other to succeed? To borrow a drone metaphor, the sky is the limit.

Yes, Virginia is changing as our population shifts. Let’s use this shift to make the wise investments today that shape a stronger tomorrow so that we can continue to thrive — both rural and urban communities — together.

Alan Grant is dean of Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Contact him at: calsdean@vt.edu

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