Danny Neel helps Virginia farmers Market Their Products
WYTHEVILLE, Va. — People in Southwest Virginia who have farm products to sell and those wanting to buy those products know who to ask about the marketing of those goods.
His name is Danny Neel, marketing specialist with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS).
Early in August, the Virginia Christmas Tree Growers Association found a way to say "thank you" to Neel for what he has done in helping them sell the real Christmas trees grown across the state.
VCTGA President Virginia Carroll presented Neel with the group's President's Award at the growers' annual convention in Blacksburg.
Christmas trees are just one of the Virginia crops Neel works to market across the states. Working to sell fruits and vegetables and processed foods is also part of Neel's work for VDACS..
"I love working with growers," Neel said. "I've developed a good relationship with buyers. I love to work with them."
His job entails working both with the people who grow and process the foods to find markets and with the people who want to sell them. The morning he was interviewed he was busy putting together an assortment of promotional materials for a major chain store interested in selling locally grown Virginia foods.
The colorful posters developed by VDACS use the “Virginia Grown” slogan and logo and identify products "Fresh from the Farm Fresh to You."
In Blacksburg, Carroll and Neel introduced the new marketing materials he has worked with the VCTGA to develop to help market real Virginia Christmas trees. These feature a new logo and the slogan "Experience A Real Tree."
The "Virginia Grown" logo is also an important tool for Neel in the work he does.
"The good thing about the state of Virginia is we've got the support of the governor, the secretary of agriculture and forestry, the commissioner and those all the way down," he said. "It's a team effort."
He pointed out that the governor always takes along some ag folks when he goes overseas.
Neel is a native of Tazewell County, Va., where he grew up on a dairy and beef cattle farm, so his roots are in agriculture and the work it takes to make a living. He earned an associate degree in business management, but started working even before he finished his studies.
In those days, the state had what was known as the Crop Reporting Service, and he began working part time for them. Jim Shelburne, an experienced livestock service grader, knew Neel and asked him to come to work in the Livestock Grading Service in 1978, Neel recalled. He worked part time for Shelburne until 1983, when he became a full-time livestock grader.
"In 1988," Neel said, "this position was created. "I applied."
He got the job.
"I changed careers in September 1988," he said. "The state set up six regular market managers across the state of Virginia and I was one of them."
"The biggest thing I have worked with the Department of Agriculture (in creating) is the farmers market in Hillsville," Neel said, referring to the Southwest Virginia Farmers Market at Exit 14 off Interstate 77. It was up in running in 1995 and is one of the most important farmers markets in the state.
The market offers both wholesale and retail components, according to its website.
The retail market gives vendors a year-round venue to sell "their farm fresh produce, produce-related items, in season plants and area arts and crafts," the site states.
The Wholesale Warehouse is also a year-round operation. It distributes local produce to grocery market chains and is equipped with cooling, packing and grading capabilities.
Things have changed since Neel started his job 23 years ago. He recalls that back then many of the Christmas tree growers he worked with had most of their trees sold by July or before. As this industry has grown, he has seen it become more competitive, especially with growers in other states. As a result, the need to become more savvy marketers has grown as well.
He sees the growth in marketing skills as partly a combination of demand and "of our people getting innovative."
He pointed to an innovation discussed at the VCTGA meeting where a grower told of putting tags on all his trees showing who grew them and where. The tags also tell how to care for a real Christmas tree to make it last and keep it safe.
One bit of advice Neel offered the tree growers probably applies to all the producers he deals with in his line of work:
"Return your calls," he urged.
He said he gets calls from potential buyers who have tried to reach a producer by leaving a message on a telephone answering machine and never get a return call. The same goes for e-mail.
Neel also works with the Virginia Pumpkin Growers Association, which has scheduled its annual Summer Tour/Field Day for Sunday, Sept. 11, in Riner, Va.. Allen Straw will give a presentation on production issues and crop status, and participants will get a look at variety trials, herbicide trials, fungicide trials and other production concerns.
The tour will be held at the Brann/King Farm and Sinkland Farm. Participants will meet at 3 p.m. at Auburn High School parking lot off Route 8 to go to the farms.
Those planning to attend should call Neel at 276-228-5501 or Straw at 932-261-0973, so they can have an accurate count for the meal at Sinkland Farm following the tour.