VALOR US Regional Study Seminar a success

The long-anticipated U.S. Regional Study Seminar for VALOR went off without a hitch in late September. Even the weather could not have been more perfect, as our warm and sunny week was sandwiched between two wet and stormy ones in the upper Midwest. Fellow adult agricultural leadership program directors from Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan helped coordinate tour stops, learning opportunities, meals, and networking in their states in order to make this seminar valuable to our VALOR inaugural class.

The group gathered in Lexington, Va. and headed west. The first destination was the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis for a tour of the Glass Barn educational facility that had just opened to the public in August. Sponsored by the Indiana Soybean Alliance, Indiana Corn Marketing Council, and the Indiana Corn Growers Association, this fantastic hands-on facility offers a look at production agriculture in Indiana through the eyes of three farm families and the companies they support. The Glass Barn represents both the need and desire for agriculture to be transparent in their dealings with public consumers, and this venue is a sure step in that direction.  We enjoyed a lovely meal with the Indiana AgriInstitute’s program director to learn of their adult ag leadership programming structure and success. Program graduates opened their homes to our group  for the night and gave us the opportunity to gain perspective from each family’s professional role in agriculture.

Early the next morning, we met at the headquarters of the National FFA Organization and engaged in discussion with high-level staff to explore the value of agricultural education curriculum that fully integrates learning experiences and career development opportunities as part of student learning. Partnerships that are being forged with employers seeking dynamic and talented young people for one of over 300 ag-related careers are impressive, as is the growth of this organization. VALOR fellows then engaged with Product Manager Tim Keller at Dow AgroSciences for an in-depth facility tour and discussion about modern trends in production pharmaceuticals that meet consumer demand for performance and environmental accountability. Afternoon tours included the Western Indiana Sustainable Energy Resource facility and wind farm and BioTown Ag to look at closed-loop sustainable farming models that digest all waste and generate both energy and natural fertilizers. Dinner that evening was hosted by three program grads that hold leadership positions in Indiana agriculture and Extension, who eagerly shared their success as a result of being affiliated with a program similar to ours.

Next, we headed to the Windy City to visit the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, a most impressive four-year college preparatory program where students select a career pathway in horticulture, agricultural education, animal science, agricultural mechanics, agricultural finance, or food science. All courses across the school integrate hands-on learning to supplement lecture and concepts from traditional academic courses are integrated into the career pathways. Our young tour guide, for example, is in the ag mechanics pathway and will be pursuing architecture in college as a result of finding connections between her labs and her advanced calculus course. In the heart of downtown, we visited the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to view the ag commodity trading floor at the end of the market day as bells signified the closing for each futures and options group.

Western Michigan allowed us to see diversified ag in a region not visited by our group before. DeGrandchamp Farms provided an opportunity to see cranberry and blueberry production first hand and learn about differences in harvest practice related to whether the berries are destined for fresh or processed markets. Dietrich Farms offered a chance to see apple packing lines in full swing, as this family-owned operation sorts and packs over 1 million bushels of apples for customers (including McDonald’s) annually, equating to 20% of Michigan’s annual production. We had a stimulating conversation about family business, risk-taking, the impact of business policy and legislation at the local level, and thinking innovatively about agri-enterprise with the owner of Countryside Greenhouse, which has eight acres under roof and operates 24 check-out lanes for customers that drive hours to buy direct from the grower. Roger Victory, a Michigan state legislator, then shared his story at Victory Farms, which grows summer and winter produce ranging from leeks to butternut squash. Our final stop that evening was at Grassfields Farms, an organic dairy and artisanal cheese operation. Awaiting us after our tour was a long, china-set table under the fall trees that overlooked acres of crops and a sunset on the horizon. The meal was lovingly prepared on-premises with chicken, cheeses, vegetables, and apples from each of the locations we had visited. We shared stories with Extension personnel from Michigan State and families that were hosting us in their homes for the night. It was a great opportunity to learn and debrief about the types of leadership we had seen that day inside family businesses and communities. We concluded this fantastic seminar the following day with a tour of Michigan State, presentation about the history of Ag Leadership programming in the United States, and ice cream from the MSU dairy served by the Great Lakes Leadership Academy director, a program grad, and the director of Governmental Relations for MSU Extension.

Since the VALOR program began, participants and staff have been asked about opportunities that result from participation, and the types of people that go through these adult ag leadership programs around the world. We met several current or graduated fellows of the state programs we visited including the CEO of the Indiana Soybean Alliance, Indiana Corn Marketing Council, and Indiana Corn Growers Association; the National FFA Director of Corporate Relations; a Dow AgroSciences product manager; the assistant director of Extension staff development at Purdue University; commissioner of Jasper County, IN; a seed sales agronomist; the department chair for the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences; the owner of Countryside Greenhouses; a Michigan State Representative and owner of Victory Farms; and a town council member and owner of Grassfields Farms. All shared with our fellows anecdotal evidence that their involvement in small and large business, local and state government, corporate and private enterprise, was enhanced and even perpetuated because of their involvement with state Ag leadership programs and the connections and opportunities afforded them as participants and graduates.

For more information about this and other program seminars, please visit our website and blog regularly. We look forward to Seminar VIII in November as we travel to far Southwest Virginia. Inquiries about program participation and sponsorship should be sent to Megan Seibel, VALOR director at mseibel@vt.edu or 540-231-.2375. Applications for Class 2 will be accepted Jan. 8 – March 5, 2014 and nominations can be made on an ongoing basis.

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