VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) — Jonathan Cavin's favorite piece of equipment on his farm in Lee County is a commercial-size Stihl brush cutter.
Cavin grows tobacco, broccoli and sweet corn, and the tool is handy for shredding weeds or overgrowth.
Stihl, a Virginia Beach-based company that manufactures outdoor power equipment, sponsors a program for farmers and ranchers ages 18 to 35 through the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Several hundred members from around the country visited Virginia Beach for a four-day conference in which they networked with colleagues, volunteered at local schools, attended a trade show and took several tours in the region, including one at the Stihl factory.
"It's a good leadership-building group," said Derek Orth, a dairy farmer from Wisconsin.
The company formed a bond with young farmers in America more than 10 years ago because it makes tools they use to work the land.
Stihl, which promotes tools for the farm and ranch trades, is interested in what equipment growers favor and how they use it. Top items include post hole augers and backpack sprayers, said Roger Phelps, Stihl spokesman.
Cavin and his wife, Amber, received a Stihl chainsaw as a prize for the farm bureau's Young Farmers & Ranchers Achievement Award a few years ago. On the factory tour last Monday, the final day of the conference, they watched workers and machines build them.
Stihl employs 1,900 people in Virginia Beach. The company makes more than 280 variations of hand-held outdoor power tools and exports to more than 90 countries.
After taking in technology on the factory floor, the touring tillers headed to Virginia Beach's agriculture community, about 20 minutes south.
They listened to words of advice from seasoned growers. Mike Cullipher, a fifth-generation farmer, explained how his family's business model changed through the years from wholesale to direct-to-consumer sales. Social media and campaigns aimed at buying local, he said, help get the word out about locally grown produce in a competitive market.
During a visit to Frank T. Williams Farms, a crowd from Indiana, Iowa and other Midwestern states huddled around Williams with questions about his extensive granary operation.
Williams, who has been farming for more than 45 years, sells feed to Perdue Farms in Chesapeake and Murphy-Brown, the livestock subsidiary of Smithfield Foods.
Virginia Beach, with nearly 30,000 acres of farmland, had a bumper year for corn in 2013. Soybeans, wheat and corn are the city's largest crops.
The farmers also heard about the city's efforts to preserve that land.
David Trimmer, director of the Virginia Beach Department of Agriculture, explained a program that ensures the Beach's "green line" - an urban growth boundary - will be maintained for generations to come.
The line protects the city's southern agricultural areas from urban and suburban sprawl to the north.
Finding the balance between farm and factory impressed the young entrepreneurs.
"It's interesting to see how technology and agriculture work together here," Cavin said.
Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com