The Virginia Agriculture Leaders Obtaining Results (VALOR) program, the commonwealth’s premier agriculture-leadership training program, celebrated the graduation of its third class of leadership fellows at the Hotel Roanoke on July 14.
The program, which is housed at Virginia Tech within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is also preparing to welcome its fourth class of fellows, and has announced the names of those invited to begin this fall.
The Cohort III fellows, who engaged in a service project and professional development activities during the past two years, enjoyed an evening reception and dinner ceremony at the historic hotel and closed their fellowship experience with an alumni networking brunch. Each reminisced about experiences and knowledge gained throughout the program.
“Moving forward, I see with open eyes the world of people around me not by how they farm or how they eat, but by the positive ways in which they interact with each other. As a leader in my own form, I am using the tools learned through VALOR to cut through conflicts and help people to understand that we are not so different after all,” reflected VALOR Class III graduate Will Hatcher, an environmental health specialist with the Virginia Department of Health.
Graduating fellows are Kristin Beery, of Mt. Sidney; Kimley Blanks, of South Boston; Jennifer Friedel, of Blacksburg; Will Hatcher, of Cumberland; Frank Johnson III, of Warsaw; Paula Martin, of Mount Crawford; Christopher Mullins, of South Chesterfield; Michelle Olgers, of Sutherland; Lindsay Smith, of Washington, D.C.; and Nathan Walsh, of Round Hill.
This cohort significantly contributed to the diversity of agricultural leaders. The fellows’ backgrounds ranged from dairy, Angus beef, and poultry farmers to agriculture marketing, communications, and education specialists. In addition, the cohort included elected officials, organization presidents, and industry advocates, each bringing a unique background and interpretation of agriculture, industry, and need.
“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,” said VALOR director, Megan Seibel.
As the third class ends, Cohort IV will begin this September as the largest group of VALOR fellows to-date. The two-year training includes experiential travel, leadership discourse, and networking designed to prepare fellows to undertake leadership roles facilitating community problem-solving and promoting Virginia agriculture – communicating its realities, vigor, and needs – in forums in, and outside of, the industry.
Following a competitive application and interview process, invited members for Class IV include Mike Aulgur, an executive with Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative from McGaheysville; Matthew Brantley, a sales and technology specialist with James River Equipment from Southampton; Michael Carter Jr., an agricultural consultant with VSU’s Small Farm Resource Center and manager of Carter Farms LLC from Woodford; Bobby Drumheller, a soil conservationist with USDA-NRCS and farmer with Bellevue Farm from Swoope; Amy Fannon, an ANR Agent with Virginia Cooperative Extension and part-time operator of Hickory Flats Pumpkin Patch from Pennington Gap; Jacqueline Gooden-Seay, an instructor at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College from Chesterfield; Brantley Ivey, an operator with River Ridge Land and Cattle Company from Independence; Allyson Jones-Brimmer, a marketing, communications, and membership developer with the Animal Agriculture Alliance from Falls Church; Stefanie Kitchen, a legislative specialist with Virginia Farm Bureau from Richmond; Kimberly Love, a branch manager with Farm Credit of the Virginias from Washington (Rappahannock); Omchand Mahdu, an agricultural researcher at Virginia Tech from Blacksburg; Chad Martin, vice mayor with the City of Martinsville from Axton; Brandon Reeves, an operator with Valley View Farms LLC from Mount Solon; Morgan Slaven, a nonprofit development associate with the Virginia Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom from Staunton; Shasta Sowers, a high school career coach with Wytheville Community College from Glade Spring; Kari Sponaugle, a 4-H Agent with Virginia Cooperative Extension and co-owner of Church Hill Produce from Doe Hill; Adam Taylor, manager of the Catawba Sustainability Center and owner of Singing Spring Farm from New Castle; David Winston, an Extension dairy specialist with Virginia Tech from Radford; and Emily Wong, associate director of development with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Virginia Tech from Radford.
VALOR is one of about 40 agricultural leadership programs active in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia. Agricultural leadership programs use a research-based experiential learning approach that builds professional leadership skills in the context of agriculture. In addition to on-the-ground agriculture, agricultural policy and communications are included in visits to the state and national 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 went to South Africa. Previous cohorts have visited Argentina and Vietnam.
Fellows meet every other month for two years to train, network, and travel throughout Virginia’s nine distinct agricultural regions. Professional and personal development themes for these seminars include ag trade and communicating with others, urban agriculture and national ag policy, team building and collaboration, and communicating the industry, among others.
“Seminar content is a hybrid of ‘must keep’ content from previous years and new experiences unique for each class. As a result, our entire group of current and past VALOR fellows has a broader collective knowledge of the great diversity and impact represented by the many facets of Virginia agriculture,” said Seibel.
As they travel, VALOR fellows are hosted by agricultural leaders who illustrate regional realities, challenges, and innovations on their family farms, dairies, livestock and produce operations, urban greenhouses, crop fields, fishing boats, and forests.
Graduating fellow and communications director for Halifax County, Kimley Blanks, said, “Although I cannot predict the future of ag and forestry, I know that my passion and desire to ag-vocate will support and direct my actions and hopefully build my community.”
Course-based learning and hands-on experience throughout the state prepares fellows to lead their own communities in civic discourse and decision-making, guiding and engaging others in community action, and problem-solving. VALOR is open to anyone interested in promoting agriculture though decision-making, problem-solving, influencing policy development, and leveraging advanced interpersonal skills.
Agriculture is Virginia’s largest industry by far, employing more than 330,000 farmers and workers and generating approximately $70 billion annually. It supports biological and cultural diversity, protecting water and soil quality. In an increasingly crowded urban world, VALOR graduates are leaders trained to communicate and promote agriculture and the communities and industries that support it.
Responding to the need to develop leadership for this critical industry, support for VALOR comes from various organizations, including Farm Credit of the Virginias and the Virginia Farm Bureau, small businesses, foundations, and generous individuals.