Q1. You are a lifelong resident of Pulaski County and run a farm that has been in your family since 1795. What is it like to serve on the governing body for a place where you have such deep roots?
Joe Guthrie: Yes, my roots run deep in Pulaski County. I’m the 6th generation of the Guthrie family to live on our farm near Dublin and we are raising the 7th generation. Those ties to the community are at the very essence of why I chose to stand for an elected position in the county – first on the School Board and now on the Board of Supervisors.
This place is truly home to me, and I have greatly enjoyed living here. I think it’s a beautiful place to live and a great place to raise a family. I plan to live here the rest of my life, and since I do, I want this to be as great a community as it can be. I believe that a big part of achieving greatness in a community is to have highly effective local government. I have some education, experience, and enthusiasm for doing work for my community, and I asked the voters if they would like me to use my skills to help set direction and make decisions on how we move forward through our local government. I told the voters that I want to make Pulaski County into an even better place to live, work, play, raise a family and retire. That’s what I keep in mind with everything I do on the Board of Supervisors. We constantly strive to achieve that high level of excellence in community economic prosperity and excellent quality of life for the folks in our county.
Those deep roots also give me a good institutional knowledge of the community. They help me to know our past and our present – how we got from where we were to where we are today. That can often be helpful to add that voice to the board. However, I also recognize that there is a lot of value to be gained from newcomers. It’s good to get fresh ideas and perspectives on how things are done in other places and what people have experienced that has worked well elsewhere. A good board can take both of those perspectives from its board members and staff and mix them to create great results. We have that on our board.
Q2. Education is clearly very important to you – you were a Fulbright Scholar; you served on the Pulaski County School Board; you serve on VACo’s Education Steering Committee, and you’ve taught at Virginia Tech since 2007. Are there some trends or initiatives in the education realm (either in K-12 or higher education) that you would point to as particularly successful? Are there some policies you would change, if you could wave a wand?
JG: I’m very proudly a product of Pulaski County Public Schools. The teachers gave me the background I needed to be successful in college and in my career. My three children have all attended Pulaski County Public Schools and they have gotten the same high level of preparation for college. My daughter is a graduate of Yale, my middle son is in ROTC at Virginia Tech, and my youngest is a senior at Pulaski County High School (PCHS) this year. So, yes, education is important to me, and especially doing what I can to help provide a high quality free public education for people in our county.
In fact, the biggest issue facing Pulaski County for the 6 years I’ve been in elected office has been education, and specifically what to do about our two aging middle schools. They were our former high schools in Pulaski and Dublin before PCHS was constructed in 1974. After studying all the possible options carefully, I became a strong advocate for a new consolidated school located near the high school between the towns of Dublin and Pulaski. The School Board got a great architectural design and an option on the ideal piece of land. Then we on the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved sending a $47 million bond referendum to the voters. They approved it last November by a nearly 2 to 1 margin with large majorities in every precinct in the county. Keep in mind, we asked the people to raise their own taxes by 20 percent and they didn’t flinch. They basically told us, “It’s for the kids. Here’s the money. Now build it.” I was very proud of our people for that.
On the Board of Supervisors, we see education in general and the new school in particular as not only necessities for our citizens, but as economic development drivers. We know people look at the quality of schools as a determining factor in where they choose to live, and one of my top goals is for people to choose to live in Pulaski County because of the schools, not in spite of them. A new middle school is absolutely vital for that.
We are also fortunate in the New River Valley to have two great universities and a community college in our region. There’s no question that they add to our quality of life, provide opportunities for our people to advance their careers, and assist us with luring new economic development.
I’m a strong proponent for Dual Enrollment and Advanced Placement courses to give high school students the opportunity to get college credit while still in high school and reduce their time and cost in getting a college degree. We have greatly expanded those offerings at PCHS in recent years. We on the Board of Supervisors also included in this year’s budget the funding to begin an International Baccalaureate program at PCHS. It will soon be one of the few IB programs in western Virginia. This is part of our economic development strategy that places an emphasis on attracting international investment, and expanding the many international companies that we already have here, which are some of our largest employers. The IB program will allow children of those international corporate employees from the company’s headquarters to receive a degree at our high school that is recognized in their home country. It also can add value to a PCHS graduate who applies for colleges in the US or abroad.
Where I think we need to emphasize change in education is in doing more and better with educating for workforce readiness. After decades of losing industries and struggling with high unemployment, we have dropped the county’s unemployment rate from 9.6 percent to 3.1 percent in 18 months. Now we find ourselves with a new workforce challenge: having enough skilled workers to fill the jobs that are available now and that we will be bringing to the county in the next several years. We need people who have skills, licenses, and certifications to fill high-paying jobs. Of course, there is always a need for college graduates, but there’s never been more opportunity for skilled industrial workers than there is now. We want everyone who isn’t able to take advantage of those opportunities be able to do so soon by getting the education or work force training that they need now. As part of that, we are in discussion with New River Community College on how the county can be part of a public/private partnership to provide a free community college education to all of our residents.
Q3. What were your favorite subjects in school?
JG: The Social Studies were definitely a favorite – geography, government, and history. That interest has shaped many of the things I’ve done in life. For example, it led to me seeking an international experience for graduate school, and I received a Fulbright to study agricultural economics and international trade in New Zealand. It’s also been part of my interest in seeking an elected government office. And if I wasn’t teaching agricultural business and management in the Agricultural Technology Program at Virginia Tech, I’d probably be teaching history somewhere.
Another favorite and valuable experience for me in high school was the years I took agricultural education and participated in Future Farmers of America (FFA). I not only learned about agriculture, but through FFA I also built skills in leadership. Those are skills that gave me the confidence to run for elected office and that I utilize at every Board of Supervisors meeting. It has also given me a great appreciation for the value of career and technical education, and I remain a strong supporter of CTE programs.
Q4. In your view, what are the major challenges and opportunities facing Pulaski County in the next 10 years?
JG: I think of our challenges and opportunities in two big categories: providing opportunities for increased economic prosperity and providing opportunities for a high quality of life.
Economic opportunity begins with bringing more and better jobs, but it’s not just jobs. It’s about high-paying jobs with great benefits. It’s about jobs in a safe and healthy environment. It’s about jobs with potential for advancement for workers. It’s about jobs with employers that treat their employees well and that people want to work for. Those are the types of companies we are recruiting to Pulaski County, and once they are here we work with them to help them grow and bring even more of those kinds of jobs.
Quality of life encompasses many things, but it’s about what people are looking for in the place that they live. It is about having high quality schools and colleges. It’s about having affordable housing and a low cost of living. It’s having indoor and outdoor recreational opportunities. It’s about parks, libraries, museums, walking trails. It’s about feeling safe because you have an effective police and sheriff’s office and first responders. It’s about being near shopping and entertainment. Those are the types of things we know people are looking for. We need to be part of providing those in communities, either through local government, or through creating the environment and infrastructure for the private sector to provide them.
Of course we have problems in our county, but I learned by attending VACo and NACo meetings that our problems are not unique to us. They are widespread and they will take solutions from counties, cities, and citizens all over Virginia and the US working to overcome them. For example, we know that opioid abuse is a problem here, but it’s a problem almost everywhere now. We are taking steps to address it and we’ve joined a class action suit against the drug manufacturers as part of that effort. We know that access to broadband in a rural community and going the “last mile” is a very difficult challenge to overcome. Again, that’s one that all of our rural counties face and can work together to find a solution for.
We need to stem the decline of our K-12 student enrollment. That’s a problem we are seeing in rural counties all across Virginia and the US. Our investment in a new middle school is a big step we are taking to address that. We will also need rural county voices to be heard in discussions about school funding where a declining number of students leads to a decline in funding but not to declines in costs of running the school system as the fixed costs remain the same or increase over time.
Another challenge I’ve been working on is equity between counties and cities, which is a real problem in Virginia and unique to the Commonwealth because of our independent city structure. Counties need the same access to sources of tax revenues, such as tobacco taxes, that cities (and even towns) currently have. That would certainly be one helpful solution to our school funding issue for rural counties.
Q5. You recently testified before a Congressional subcommittee about technological advances in agriculture. What do you think the future holds for farming in Virginia?
JG: People who are not involved in the agricultural industry probably have no idea how advanced the technology has become. For example, the use of unmanned systems in agriculture is large, widespread and growing all the time. Auto-steering tractors guided by highly detailed GPS maps and satellite imagery can plant, spray, and harvest fields while the farmer monitors multiple tractors in different fields from a desktop computer. Planters driven by those tractors can automatically choose a specific variety of seed from a menu of pre-determined choices based on soil fertility and set it at the appropriate depth. Sprays and fertilizers can be applied at varying rates based on soil and plant conditions automatically as the sprayer or spreader drives across the field.
Drones flying over a crop field can produce high quality images that help determine needs for weed control, irrigation, or fertilization. Livestock farmers who used to drive their pick-up trucks across fields checking on livestock, now sit on their porch and fly a drone with video cameras over the fields.
At many dairy farms now, including two in Pulaski County, cows don’t walk into a dairy parlor twice a day to be milked. Instead, any time she wants, the cow enters a robotic milking machine that milks her with no person being involved. It’s an expensive technology, but one made necessary by the difficulty dairy farmers face in finding and keeping low cost and highly reliable farm workers.
All of this technology is making agriculture more productive. Because of its cost, however, it remains to be seen whether it makes agriculture more profitable. One thing we do know, it is continuing a trend we’ve seen for many years of consolidation in the industry. Fewer farms run by fewer people on fewer acres with fewer livestock are producing more output.
That trend has serious implications for rural counties. The dairy industry is a good example. About 50 years ago there were around fifty dairy farms in Pulaski County, all of them small by today’s standards. Today there are five. So, where once fifty farm families were raising over 100 kids and sending them to county schools, today there are five families with around a dozen kids, almost all of whom are grown now. Where once there were fifty farmers and their families buying supplies and groceries at local stores, now there are five.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with improvements in technology and shifts from labor to capital. There’s nothing wrong about consolidation of businesses into fewer and larger units, as we are seeing in agriculture. In fact, the increase in efficiencies provides us with a cheap and abundant food supply. But those trends have serious implications for rural county governments faced with declining farm populations.
Q6. What are some “must-do” activities for a first-time visitor to Pulaski County?
JG: Any visit to the New River Valley Region and Pulaski County in particular would hopefully involve some outdoor activities. We have some of the best you’ll find anywhere, and there are great things to do for people of any age or ability.
Pulaski County features beautiful Claytor Lake with a state park with camping, swimming, boating, kayaking, and other water sports. But don’t miss beautiful Gatewood Park, a scenic reservoir in the mountains overlooking the town of Pulaski. You can enjoy it best from a kayak or stand-up paddleboard that you can rent on-site.
The New River Trail State Park offers walking, biking or horseback riding along a 53 mile long trail on a former railroad bed between Pulaski and Galax. It provides for easy walking or biking (it’s even handicapped-accessible) and provides stunningly beautiful views of the New River and Blue Ridge Mountains. It can be accessed from several sites in the county including in the town of Pulaski, and the communities of Draper, Hiwassee, and Allisonia.
Kids will love the water park at Randolph Park in Dublin. And people of any age enjoy a round of disc golf there at one of the best courses you’ll find in Virginia.
Many of our first-time visitors are Boy Scouts who attend camp on the 17,000 acre scout reservation south of the New River.
On a summer evening, take in a baseball game and see some potential future Bronx Bombers as the Pulaski Yankees play ball in the Appalachian League at the historic but newly renovated and expanded Calfee Park in Pulaski.
Or take in a live show or concert at the beautifully restored Pulaski Theater. It’s just across Main Street from the New River Valley Fine Arts Center Gallery, which features works from some of the best local and regional artists. History enthusiasts will enjoy the history museum in the old granite Courthouse next to the theater.
If you’re staying overnight, and you will probably need to do that in order to get in all these activities, you might want to stay at the stately Rockwood Manor in Dublin, a B&B at one of the county’s finest 19th century mansions. Or perhaps stay at the Jackson Park Inn in Pulaski, where a historic brick warehouse with massive oak beams has been converted into a hotel, restaurant, and bar in the heart of downtown.
Another county feature I’m excited to be working on now is a 94-acre property of open space bordering a 13 acre former school property in the community of Fairlawn, just across the New River from the City of Radford. The farmland was recently donated to the County from the Virginia Outdoors Foundation to be used as a park, fulfilling the wishes of the former owner. The school site provides playgrounds, ball fields, parking, a gym, and community center. A walking trail will connect the school site and the new park to the New River, and perhaps in time a pedestrian bridge over the river to Radford’s Bisset Park and Radford University. Other park features are to be determined, but discussion so far involves more walking trails, a tournament-quality disc golf course, dog parks, an equestrian center, and an amphitheater.
So, for a rural county there’s a lot to do and something everyone can enjoy. Come see us.
VACo Contact: Katie Boyle