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Virginia’s agricultural leadership training program welcomes diverse fellowship in third cohort

September 15, 2016

Back Row: Kimley Blanks, Frank Johnson, Mike Smetak, Nate Walsh, Chris Mullins, Greta Liskey, Jen Shaver  Front Row: Lindsay Smith, Will Hatcher, E.B. Watson, Paula Martin, Kristin Beery, Michelle Olgers
Back Row: Kimley Blanks, Frank Johnson, Mike Smetak, Nate Walsh, Chris Mullins, Greta Liskey, Jen Shaver Front Row: Lindsay Smith, Will Hatcher, E.B. Watson, Paula Martin, Kristin Beery, Michelle Olgers

The Virginia Agriculture Leaders Obtaining Results training program welcomed its third class of fellows this September. The group will be the third one of its kind to commence the two-year series of experiential travel, leadership discourse, and networking designed to prepare participants to undertake leadership roles facilitating community problem-solving and promoting Virginia agriculture – communicating its realities, vigor, and needs – in forums inside and outside the industry.

On a farmer-friendly schedule, in intensive two-to-four day seminars every other month, fellows will explore professional and personal development themes such as:

  • agricultural trade and communicating with others;
  • urban agriculture and national agriculture policy;
  • team building and collaboration; and
  • communicating the agriculture industry.

VALOR is one of 36 agricultural leadership training programs in the United States. Programs like the one housed here at Virginia Tech are working in Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, Ireland, England, France, and the Netherlands. Following an evidence-based program structure, VALOR fellows combine coursework with practical knowledge traveling together to visit farmers, foresters, fishermen, allied industries, and community leaders in Virginia and another U.S. state.

Traveling through each of Virginia’s agricultural regions, VALOR fellows see leadership in real-world action where communication, big-picture contextual knowledge, and diplomacy help negotiate a path to innovation and progress.

The program culminates in an international seminar. Previous fellows have traveled to Argentina and Vietnam witnessing tremendous innovation, challenges, and placing Virginia and United States agriculture in a global context.

This structure builds effective advocates who understand the nuances of agriculture’s social, economic, and environmental context at local, regional, national, and international scales, and VALOR regularly evaluates and develops its programming and opportunities.

 “With each successive cycle of VALOR, our program reputation and network grow, resulting in new opportunities for tours and host sites, deepened application of learning, and a chance to continually raise the bar,” said Megan Seibel, program director.

“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,” she said.

Over the two years, the twelve experiential seminars cover about 54 days. VALOR is open to anyone interested in promoting agriculture though decision making, problem solving, influencing policy development, and leveraging advanced interpersonal skills.

Through a rigorous application process, each fellowship cohort is constructed to represent the diversity of Virginia agriculture. Alumni include rural development professionals, lenders, professors, entrepreneurs, professionals in communications, policy, and law, soil and water conservation agents, beef producers, a cotton farmer, and a dairy herdsperson.

“We are excited about the fellows that will comprise class three,” said Seibel. “Diverse and intriguing, they leverage a variety of backgrounds and areas of expertise. As a cohort, they will strengthen and learn from each other and, as eventual alumni, they serve to make VALOR even more relevant.”

Current VALOR class members inlcude:

  • Kristin Beery, an agricultural education instructor in Augusta County Public Schools from Mt. Sidney;
  • Kimley Blanks, an agriculture marketing director, County of Halifax, from South Boston;
  • William Hatcher, Virginia Department of Corrections, Quality Assurance, State Farm Agribusiness, from Cumberland;
  • Frank Johnson III, chief leadership officer, Hope for Family and Business Prosperity from Warsaw;
  • Greta Liskey, owner of Liskey Custom Work in Harrisonburg;
  • Paula Martin, AVP/ag credit analyst, First Bank and Trust Company from Mt. Crawford;
  • Christopher Mullins, an assistant professor at Virginia State University and Extension specialist from South Chesterfield;
  • Michelle Olgers, director of marketing and communication at Virginia State University from Sutherland;
  • Jennifer Shaver, an attorney at Shaver Law Office from Abingdon; 
  • Michael Smetak, the regional director of Shenandoah Growers from New Market;
  • Linsday Smith, coordinator, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, USDA Food LINC from Washington, DC;
  • Nathan Walsh, owner/winemaker-vineyard manager, Walsh Winegrowing LLC/Sunset Hills Vineyard from Purcellville;
  • and Elizabeth “E.B.” Watson, assistant farm manager of Dawn Dairy, and district manager/conservation specialist, Peaks of Otter SWCD from Bedford.

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