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VALOR program graduates twelve new agricultural leaders

Virginia Agriculture Leaders Obtaining Results, the state’s premier agricultural leadership training program, celebrated the graduation of its second class of leadership fellows at the Hotel Roanoke on July 16.

The three-day event was marked by graduating fellows completing a service project with hunger relief organization Feeding America and culminated with an evening reception and dinner ceremony at the historic hotel. The ceremony closed with an alumni breakfast to matriculate graduating fellows into their new roles as agricultural leaders in their  respective communities.

VALOR is one program of about 40 active agricultural leadership programs in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia that promotes culturally appropriate agricultural leadership training that uses a research-based experiential learning approach to build professional leadership skills. The program is housed in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education.

Graduating fellows include:

  • Marilyn Adams, a Farm Credit branch manager from Purcellville, Virginia;
  • Lauren Arbogast, a digital learning designer and poultry producer from Harrisonburg, Virginia;
  • Shelley Barlow, a cotton and row crop farmer from Chuckatuck, Virginia;
  • Timothy Durham, Ferrum College assistant professor of agronomy from Callaway, Virginia;
  • Basil Gooden, state director of Rural Development (USDA) and Virginia’s incoming secretary of agriculture and forestry from Buckingham, Virginia;
  • M. James Faison, President, Milton’s Local from Hopewell, Virginia;
  • Jennifer Leech, a dairy herdsperson from Lexington, Virginia;
  • Albert Reid, a Virginia State University 4-H specialist from Ettrick, Virginia;
  • Adam Shiflett, Farm Credit lending team leader from Staunton, Virginia;
  • Josh Stephens, a petroleum sales manager from Quicksburg, Virginia;
  • Joe Wilkerson, landscaping business owner from South Boston, Virginia; and
  • Cliff Williamson, regulatory affairs with the American Horse Council from Culpeper, Virginia.

“This class brought a new level of diverse backgrounds and ideas to VALOR,” said Director Megan Seibel.  “As a collective voice, representing individual strengths and interests, they join the alumni in gaining recognition for the profound potential of our program and its fellows.”

This year’s graduates come from myriad fields of the agriculture industry and run the gamut from policymakers to producers, including row-crop and dairy farmers, bankers, agricultural lenders, government officials, and local food purveyors. The youngest graduate manages her family’s 300-head Shenandoah Valley dairy herd and another raises cotton and soybeans near Suffolk.

On a farmer-friendly schedule, these fellows have met every other month for two years to train, network, and travel throughout Virginia’s nine distinct agricultural regions.

As they travel, the fellows are hosted by agricultural leaders who illustrate regional realities, challenges, and innovations on their family farms, dairies, vineyards, orchards, urban greenhouses, soybean fields, fishing boats, and forests.

Course-based learning and hands-on experience throughout the state prepare fellows to lead their own communities in civic discourse and decision-making, guiding and engaging others in community action and problem-solving.

In addition to boots-on-the-ground agriculture production, agricultural policy and communication are part of the training when fellows visit the state and nation’s capitals. An international experience crowns each VALOR program by couching Virginia agriculture in the context of world trade, cooperation, and global connectivity. This spring the class visited Vietnam to gain a global perspective on agriculture.

Agriculture is Virginia’s largest industry, employing 400,000 farmers and workers and generating approximately $70 billion annually. Agriculture  supports biological and cultural diversity, while protecting water and soil quality.

“VALOR prepares people to engage in community discourse,” said Josh Stephens, graduating fellow and family farmer who raises beef and goats in Quicksburg, Virginia. “Keeping agriculture a viable industry in our county is beneficial, and all forms of agriculture need to be embraced.”

Support for VALOR comes from the Farm Credit of the Virginias and the Virginia Farm Bureau, small businesses, foundations, and generous individuals.

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VALOR finds a spirited Central Virginia

VALOR fellow and Coastal Plains cotton farmer, Shelley Barlow, recounts the spring seminar and her experience with the niche market agriculture of Central Virginia. 

While sharing a meal, I never miss an opportunity to remind all who are gathered that every bite they enjoy, with only a very few exceptions, started out on a farm somewhere. If it weren’t for farmers and agriculture, we would all be hungry, thirsty, and naked.

How lucky are we that Virginia agriculture does it all. It’s clear that the counties of Central Virginia are doing their share to fill our needs and wants for food and drink with business acumen and leadership.

But it isn’t just luck, of course. Central Virginia is capitalizing on our cravings for good food and drink in new and innovative ways. Wine, beer, cider, grass-fed beef, and ice cream, all produced from Virginia grown grapes, hops, apples, cattle, and milk are just a few of the products we sampled.


On this trip, we enjoyed creative meals at area restaurants made from many locally-sourced foods. It was an enticing and delicious show of the variety and diversity of the region’s agriculture. Actually seeing the whole process from field to glass or plate gave us a greater appreciation of the drinks and foods we enjoyed. From seeing acres of wine grapes and cider apples grown by John and Ruth Saunders at their Silver Creek Orchards, we went on to taste delightful wines at Emily Pelton’s award winning Veritas Winery and fine ciders at Albemarle Ciderworks. We also enjoyed meals at the Silver Mill Grille, Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie, and South Street Brewery, where they grow hops for their craft beers.

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VALOR — Putting “culture” in agriculture

Agriculture today is both local and global. This past winter, all across Virginia, twelve VALOR fellows – beef farmers, a row-cropper, entrepreneurs, bankers, local food advocates, and a dairy herdsperson – kissed their families goodbye, closed the gates, and checked barns and email one last time. Headlights swung into the quiet Piedmont lanes, ran along flat Coastal Plain roads, heading to Dulles, and on to Vietnam.

Chosen for its dynamic economy and booming export-driven industries, Vietnam framed and helped fellows exercise many agriculture leadership roles for VALOR’s second class. From civic engagement in orphanages to the cultural intelligence of removing shoes and enjoying dishes prepared by welcoming hosts, the fellows had the opportunity to show their respect for low- and high-tech approaches in an economy-balancing and agricultural tradition in a global world.

VALOR in Vietnam

Drenched in agriculture and a riverine economy, taxis from the airport the first night splashed through Saigon’s festival of flower-market streets. In the two-weeks to come, Class II paddled together through floating markets on the Mekong, its shimmering rice fields along the Han Noi road, river-side potteries, and pineapple gardens.

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VALOR selected for national award

The Virginia Agriculture Leaders Obtaining Results program received the 2015 National Association of Agricultural Educators Outstanding Postsecondary/Adult Agricultural Education Program Award.

The award was presented at the National Association of Agricultural Educators annual convention in New Orleans on Nov. 18. VALOR is one of only four programs nationwide that received the 2015 award.

The Virginia Agriculture Leaders Obtaining Results program was one of four education programs to receive the 2015 National Association of Agricultural Educators Outstanding Postsecondary/Adult Agricultural Education Program Award. Megan Siebel, right, director of the program, is pictured with the other winners (from left) Brydon Kaster, Craig Grisham, and Bert Bodiford.

The Virginia Agriculture Leaders Obtaining Results program was one of four education programs to receive the 2015 National Association of Agricultural Educators Outstanding Postsecondary/Adult Agricultural Education Program Award. Megan Siebel, right, director of the program, is pictured with the other winners (from left) Brydon Kaster, Craig Grisham, and Bert Bodiford.

The program is a two-year fellowship for adults working in agriculture who want to develop their communication, problem solving, and critical thinking skills, in addition to broadening their knowledge of global and local agriculture. The mission of Virginia Agriculture Leaders Obtaining Results is to develop leaders who can effectively engage all segments of the Virginia agriculture community to create collaborative solutions and promote agriculture.

The program is housed in the Department of Agricultural and Extension Education and receives funding from participant fees, the college, and Virginia Cooperative Extension, as well as from philanthropy from individual donors, industry organizations and, agribusinesses. Its success stems from raising participants’ awareness of the diversity and profitability of agriculture in Virginia.

Each of the four regional Outstanding Postsecondary/Adult Program Award winners was recognized at the NAAE convention in New Orleans. The Outstanding Postsecondary/Adult Agricultural Education Program award is sponsored by Monsanto as a special project of the National FFA Foundation. NAAE is the professional association for agricultural educators. Its mission is “professionals providing agricultural education for the global community through visionary leadership, advocacy, and service.” The national headquarters for NAAE is located in Lexington, Kentucky.

See the full news release on Virginia Tech News.

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Cowboys, sugar, and horticulture: VALOR fellows explore South Central Florida

VALOR Class II expanded its horizons with a six-day November trip to Florida, their eighth of 12 seminars. And while there is no doubt about the diversity of agriculture in our own commonwealth, seeing a small slice of Florida’s agricultural diversity was eye-opening.

Comparing the two states further reveals some major differences. Florida represents nearly 66,000 square miles of land and nearly 20 million residents, while Virginia has roughly 43,000 square miles and just over 8 million people. This difference in size was illustrated often during the seminar. Another difference? Florida’s commissioner of agriculture is elected, while both Virginia’s commissioner and secretary of agriculture are appointed by the governor.

VALOR in Florida

Focusing on the large central interior of Florida’s peninsula, the group toured 11 different locations and met with 22 agriculture and natural resource leaders, including members of Florida’s adult agriculture education group, the Wedgeworth Leadership Institute. Our group, traveling together in a large passenger van (complete with tricky locks), had many opportunities for team building and deepening our class bonds.

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VALOR embraces heritage and opportunity on Virginia’s Northern Neck and Chesapeake Bay

VALOR embraces heritage and opportunity on Virginia's Northern Neck and Chesapeake Bay The Northern Neck of Virginia offers a distinct view of the commonwealth, a region unlike any other with its rural life, “rivah” sauce, national history, and all things seafood. The VALOR program does many things well, but in particular the culture immersion that comes with each regional session is truly the icing on the cake. The Northern Neck region was no exception as the fellows went beyond simple pleasantries and truly dove into intricacies the region had to offer.

The peninsula where the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers meet the Chesapeake Bay is referred to as the Northern Neck. Located in the northeast portion of the state, it is flanked by Virginia, Maryland, and the Chesapeake Bay, and is easily accessible by scenic roads from the mid-atlantic metropolitan areas. The Northern Neck website invites visitors to “experience the road less traveled,” and does an excellent job promoting facets of the region that make it stand out for many, including outdoor adventures, fresh Virginia seafood, agriculture experiences, and historical significance.

The VALOR fellows were able to experience the full range that the Northern Neck has to offer on their most recent regional seminar. The fellows began at Stratford Hall, birthplace of Robert E. Lee, to experience agricultural and personal history of the region. Initial focus of the first few days related to agriculture, both on the land and in the water. Many local farmers and agribusinesses took great care in explaining the role of agriculture in relation to the local and global economy, shared with successes and challenges that the region has to offer. Agriculture in the Northern Neck also includes farming the sea, as evidenced at Bevans Oysters and Cowart Seafood of Lottsburg. Continue reading

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VALOR summer seminar witnesses rural challenges and daring leadership in southwest Virginia

A family farm, WiFi, a renegade health initiative, and a high school biotechnology lab. For VALOR fellows this July, these are some of strategies that illustrate the creative — sometimes daring — leadership in sustainable economic development in southwestern Virginia.

VALOR fellows trek across rich Wytheville pasture and farmland with dairy farmer describing success in the new wedding tourism market, but the lingering challenge of finding and retaining skilled labor.

VALOR fellows trek across rich Wytheville pasture and farmland with a dairy farmer who described success in the new wedding tourism market, but the lingering challenge of finding and retaining skilled labor remains an issue.

At Carroll County’s Southwest Farmers’ Market, innovative leadership decisions in the shape of a re-purposed shipping container supports small farmers. Five years ago, unable to cool their perishable corn crop, local sweet-corn farmers could not compete in the market. The county stepped in to build a hydrocooler – a $1 million contraption they built out of a shipping container and air-conditioning duct work for a much lower cost, then the county opened it up for a small fee letting farmers quick-cool their crops, lengthening the corn’s shelf life from three days to two weeks and opening the more lucrative, regional market to Carroll County farmers.

“It was like building the space-shuttle, but we did it,” said county administrator Gary Larrowe, leading the VALOR team that day. Everyone laughed, but realized that, to a farmer, adding value opens doors to regional markets – bringing that county investment back home.

“Providing this equipment gives small- and medium-sized farms the chance to grow,” Larrowe said.

The Carroll County visit demonstrated to VALOR fellows how sustainable economic development attempts to strategically integrate all levels of a community’s economic sectors. For example, investment in a biotechnology lab at the county high school is targeted to attract white-collar and high tech investment because their employees will approve of the school system; a furniture manufacturer from North Carolina was wooed to provide trades jobs; and a family-run produce distributor, a county-funded kitchen incubator and the hydrocooler support and stimulate the county’s small-scale agricultural sector.

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VALOR fellows visit agriculture in Northern Virginia

When you think of Northern Virginia, agriculture and farmland are most likely not the first thing to come to mind. In the most recent VALOR seminar, May 11-15, 2015, the fellows learned of agriculture’s presence in NoVa and even in the heart of Washington, D.C. as they traveled by car, metro, and foot to dig deeper into agriculture at the nation’s capital.

VALOR fellows

VALOR fellows at Endless Summer Harvest in Loudoun County.

The fifth learning session of the 12- seminar, two year program began on the outskirts of Washington D.C. in Loudoun County with cattle and vineyards, as well as a presentation and discussion with Dennis Dimick of National Geographic Magazine regarding the future of food. As the day progressed and the sticky heat of mid-May began to set in, fellows were greeted at their evening stop with a beach-themed warehouse – the home of Endless Summer Harvest. Owner and President Mary Ellen Taylor immediately welcomed the group with lovely hospitality and a spirit of passion for her agribusiness. Endless Summer Harvest’s hydroponic greens and microgreens are valued by home cooks and professional chefs alike, as Taylor sells at both farmers markets as well as direct market to local and regional restaurants. Continue reading

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VALOR fellows: Communicating and advocating for the industry

VALOR fellowsThe second class of fellows selected to participate in the Virginia Agriculture Leaders Obtaining Results program fellowship have just completed the fourth of twelve seminars. The third and fourth seminars, held in the Shenandoah Valley and Richmond respectively, focused on communication, legislative advocacy, and policy development.

In January, VALOR fellows traveled to the “Valley” where they had the opportunity to interface with producers and agribusinesses who are capitalizing on opportunities in Virginia’s diverse agricultural economy. The focus of the seminar was communication and one activity designed to help participants better tell the story of agriculture was media training and mock interviews with Amy Roscher, host of Virginia Farming on WPVT in Harrisonburg.

Fellow Tim Durham said, “Our recent training at WVPT was especially informative. And while it’s often framed as giving the proper ‘spin’ on an issue, it’s more nuanced than that – it’s simply telling your story as a farmer. And as a farmer, you have eminent credibility.”

In addition, VALOR Class II had the opportunity to interface with VALOR Class I during the January seminar. In his reflection blog, Fellow Adam Shiflett wrote, “I think this program Seminar was more about communication in our industry than any of us thought. We all need to make sure that we are communicating what we learn as VALOR fellows on to other people in our agriculture businesses and companies, and when we get the chance, to the next VALOR class. I think we forget that sometimes and it is very important to pass on what we are learning so more people can benefit.”

This point was reinforced with an appreciative interview session with established industry leaders, in which attendees shared personal stories and testimony about legacy leadership.

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VALOR fellows visit Tidewater and Eastern Shore during recent educational travel seminar

During the second seminar of their two-year fellowship, members of VALOR Class II explored agriculture in the Tidewater and Eastern Shore regions of the commonwealth while learning about product marketing, development, and trade on local and global levels. The seminar, which took place Nov. 13-16, was based in Suffolk, Virginia, to allow for easy access to various points in the area.

During the session, fellows explored domestic and international production and manufacturing with peanut harvesting equipment global leaders, Amadas Industries. A subsequent visit to Amadas Coach offered an inside look at how the company branched into the luxury coach business as a means of diversifying their fabrication capabilities and market portfolio.

Another company with a huge domestic and international footprint, Smithfield Foods, allowed a tour of the packing plant and Innovation Space as well as a question and answer with two of Smithfield’s executives knowledgeable about corporate communications and sustainability, and product research and development. VALOR fellows were treated to a taste-testing session for some of the anticipated holiday bacon flavors, which was an unexpected and memorable experience. Continue reading

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