Dixie Watts Reaves: Associate Professor, Agricultural and Applied Economics, Virginia Tech

Rural Cooperatives, March-April 2007 | Go to article overview

Dixie Watts Reaves: Associate Professor, Agricultural and Applied Economics, Virginia Tech


Dixie Watts Reaves, a national leader in agriculture and cooperative education, joined the faculty of Virginia Tech (VT) in 1993. Her primary interests are in agribusiness youth education, agribusiness product and service marketing and the impacts of agricultural and environmental policy on economic decision-making.

Reaves' youth-education efforts include working with the Virginia Council of Farmer Cooperatives and the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives to educate high school students about agribusiness management. Her current research focuses on the scholarship of teaching and learning, including the benefits and costs of extracurricular activities and the educational value of debates in a classroom setting.

How did you first become aware of, or start working with, cooperatives?

As a child growing up on a hog and tobacco farm in Southside Virginia, I was aware of cooperatives: my electricity was provided by a cooperative and I knew that we were members of our tobacco cooperative. But my deep involvement with co-ops really began soon after I started my career at Virginia Tech.

The faculty member who had previously worked with the Virginia Council of Farmer Cooperatives (VCFC) to sponsor its annual youth conference needed to cut back on some of his activities. As the newest person in the department, I was an obvious person to ask to step in. My acceptance of that invitation to work with VCFC was one of the most important career decisions I ever made. We have forged a strong partnership that has continued through the years.

I remain actively involved in VCFC's annual co-op education youth conference. I serve as an advisor to its board the research and education committee. VCFC supports my students with scholarships, and its members provide them with internships and hire them for full-time employment. VCFC supported my effort to create a cooperatives course at Virginia Tech, and I consider them a true partner in all of my cooperative education endeavors.

Why is co-op education at the college level important?

Cooperatives touch many areas of our day-to-day lives, often in ways that we are not even aware. From providing services such as phone, electricity and cable, to the marketing of raw or finished products, to the provision of housing or child care or health care, cooperatives can, and do, make a difference. There are many other ways cooperatives could solve problems, but they are often not considered because not enough people are knowledgeable of the cooperative model. Today's college students need to understand this. They will be tomorrow's employees, member-owners and board members.

You also teach a course on the impact of cooperatives on the human condition. What major points are made in that class?

During end-of-semester evaluations, students often say they had no idea of the widespread nature of co-ops in our society prior to taking the co-ops course. When I created the course on cooperatives, I wanted students to be aware of all of the areas of our daily lives that are, or could be, impacted by co-ops. We discuss both agricultural and non-agricultural cooperatives, why they are formed, what unmet need they fill, how they empower people, and how they help people help themselves. This course is in our university's core curriculum, so it draws students from all colleges on campus and brings a diverse perspective to our classroom discussions.

What are typical career goals for your students, and are many of them looking at co-ops as future employers?

Many of our students want to enter the agricultural finance sector or the input-supply sector after graduation, while others want to go into production agriculture. Therefore, cooperatives are an ideal employer for VT ag economics students, and many are currently employed with cooperatives in different states across the nation.

You were largely responsible for re-establishing the National Institute on Cooperative Education (NICE) Conference as a smaller meeting aimed at secondary-level students.

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Dixie Watts Reaves: Associate Professor, Agricultural and Applied Economics, Virginia Tech
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