Over the past year, the inaugural Virginia Agriculture Leaders Obtaining Results class has gotten a view of farming and food policy in the state from just about every angle. 

They visited with tomato farmers on the Eastern Shore, underwent media training at Virginia TV stations, and even met Gov. Bob McDonnell.

But on their most recent trip, the VALOR fellows got a glimpse of agriculture from a new perspective — the federal government.

The 10 VALOR fellows spent two days in Washington, D.C., meeting decision makers who are shaping food and agriculture policy in agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency. They also met U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, who spoke with them about the farm bill that was wending its way through Congress on the day they were in town.

VALOR is housed in the Department of Agricultural and Extension Education in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The program receives funding from participant fees, the college, and Virginia Cooperative Extension, as well as from philanthropy from individual donors, industry organizations and, agribusinesses.

“This is an amazing opportunity to learn about decision making at the state and federal level and to gain an understanding of how that affects producers and our country in general,” said Ken Ryan, who received his bachelor's degree in agricultural and applied economics from Virginia Tech in 2002 and is now a credit underwriter for MidAtlantic Farm Credit in Edinburg, Va. “This program provides me with an excellent opportunity to meet these policy makers I wouldn’t have the chance to meet otherwise.”

The visit to Washington, D.C., was one part of a five-day trip through the city and Northern Virginia where they examined the interface of agriculture and suburbia and they met with big retailers like Whole Foods and small farmers such as the owner of a pick-your-own berry operation, Yankey Farms. They also visited Agricultural Research and Extension Centers in Middleburg and Winchester, Va.

The VALOR program started a year ago with the aim of giving agricultural professionals around the state the tools to be able to create collaborative solutions and promote the industry. The first class includes teachers, farmers, bankers, and lobbyists. After the two-year program is over, the fellows will be advocates and ambassadors for agriculture both within the industry and to the general public.

"The potential of VALOR rests soundly in the collaborative networking being established and the potential for addressing industry issues as agricultural ambassadors,” said Megan Seibel, the program’s director. “The ideas that have surfaced during discussions stem from hard-core analysis and reflection that have highlighted needs and opportunities crosscutting all sectors of Virginia’s largest industry. VALOR is designed to bring together individuals under circumstances that diminish boundaries and facilitate growth, and we are succeeding in that intent.”

People who sponsored the first class said they believe in the mission of VALOR.

“VALOR is our way of making an investment in the future of agriculture,” said Dave Lawrence, chief executive officer of Farm Credit of the Virginias. “This inaugural group is setting a high bar for the next group. This will be a strong group of mentors for future agricultural leaders.”

Their whirlwind Washington trip taught many in the group about aspects of agriculture that they had no experience with.

They met with executives from America’s Promise, which was formed by former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his wife, Alma, with the intent of improving the lives of American youth by providing them the with resources they need to succeed.  

At the USDA, they met with leaders from the Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships program and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, who explained their work and answered questions from the group about how they can help. What they told the VALOR members went to the core mission of the program.

“Agriculture is the backbone of society,” one official told the group as he applauded VALOR’s mission of educating people on the value of farmers. “It’s critical that more people know about it.”

The group also met with officials from the EPA who stressed that farmers are valuable partners in ensuring the long-term health of our planet.

On the day the farm bill was moving through Congress, the group spent time in the Rayburn House Office Building, where congressmen and women were stopping by a luncheon hosted by Farm Credit and featured food from regional farms. Goodlatte came to meet the members of VALOR and show his support for the program. Meeting such people as they stood in the shadow of the dome of the U.S. Capitol was an important experience for the fellows.

“The networking opportunities VALOR has provided me over the last few days — and the last year — are invaluable,” said Hunter Richardson, a farmer involved in agricultural products and environmental management from Shacklefords, Va. “Meeting all these leaders allows me to connect with them and build relationships that I never had before. I’m constantly amazed by how much I am learning in each of these meetings.”

Richardson and the other VALOR fellows will have many more opportunities in the coming year as they continue to explore not only agricultural issues in the state and region, but around the world. In March 2014 they are headed to Argentina to examine global agricultural issues.

The inaugural VALOR class includes Ben Grove of Blacksburg, Va.; Matt Hickey of Staunton, Va.; Dana Fisher of New Market, Va.; Andrew Smith of Beaverdam, Va.; Teresa Lindberg of Jarratt, Va.; C.J. Isbell of Rockville, Va.; Ian Heatwole of Weyers Cave, Va.; Roger Elkins of Jonesville, Va.; Richardson; and Ryan.

The class will graduate from the program in July 2014. Applications for class two will be open late spring 2014 and nominations for this prestigious program can be submitted at any time.  Both the program website and blog contain information about the activities made possible by the support of so many in agriculture.