Amid COVID restrictions that have disrupted programming and networking, resilient and dedicated agriculture leaders have stayed the course with a focus on making a difference for Virginia’s largest private industry. VALOR, Virginia’s premier agriculture leadership program, celebrates the graduation of its fourth class of leadership fellows in Harrisonburg this August and prepares to welcome the fifth cohort in September, following current guidelines for meetings and thinking proactively about how to deliver reputable, high-quality content.

Part of the International Association of Programs for Agricultural Leadership, Virginia’s program is not alone in working through COVID-19 impacts on experience-based professional development and industry networking. Similar fellowship programs around the globe, whose typical format includes bi-monthly geographically-dispersed sessions, are facing a new normal in how best to keep curriculum fresh and fellows active at a time when leadership is critically important.

VALOR Class IV was doing its international program study in Europe this March when the president announced that borders were closing and they aborted their travel to return home. Virtual meetings have occurred since then to keep the group in forward progression, and they are eager to have some closure of their program experience with a socially-distanced graduation recognition.

“As I reflect on two years of the VALOR program, I think back to our first session as a class when we had a presentation and discussion on change," states VALOR Class IV graduate Allyson Jones-Brimmer, director of operations for the U.S. Beet Sugar Association. "Wow, the world has certainly changed since then! We had a bumpy ride home on our international trip cut short due to a global pandemic. We witnessed disruptions to agriculture supply chains. Most people's daily lives changed dramatically. I have been able to witness how people in leadership positions at every level have responded to the rapidly changing needs of the country and communities. I have seen resilience, along with being able to recognize areas that need to change. As a result of VALOR, I feel better equipped to critically evaluate community needs and contribute to positive change.”

Graduating fellows are J. Michael Algur, Matthew Brantley, Amy Fannon Byington, Bobby Drumheller, Jacqueline Gooden-Seay, R. Brantley Ivey, Stefanie Kitchen, Allyson-Jones Brimmer, Omchand Mahdu, Morgan Slaven Messer, Brandon Reaves, Kim Love Rittenhouse, Shasta Sowers, Kari Sponaugle, David Winston, and Emily Wong.

This cohort significantly contributes to the diversity of agricultural leaders in the commonwealth. Fellows have production backgrounds in produce, dairy, and beef, and professional experience in education, utility distribution, communications, government relations, international trade and policy, and precision technology. Also, they are positioned as managers, elected officials, faculty members, and senior staff of their representative organizations and businesses. VALOR Director Megan Seibel said that this graduating class “is prepared to join the alumni in continuing the strong reputation of our program and those that complete it.”

In a file photo from January 2019, VALOR Class IV is pictured with Governor Northam and Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Betting Ring.

In a file photo from January 2019, VALOR Class IV is pictured with Governor Northam and Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Betting Ring.
In a file photo from January 2019, VALOR Class IV is pictured with Governor Northam and Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Betting Ring.

As the fourth class ends, Cohort V will begin this September. Intentionally small, this cohort is prepared to navigate the uncertainty of the next two years with regard to continual COVID-19 impacts on meeting space restrictions and access to specialized learning environments that are a hallmark of a signature program experience. Regardless of impacts on travel, fellows will engage in leadership discourse and program content that is designed to prepare them to undertake challenging roles in solving complex community and industry problems. Virginia agriculture, along with its realities, vigor, and needs, is promoted by current and past VALOR fellows at a variety of venues inside and outside of the industry.

Incoming VALOR Class V fellows include Susan Belford from Boyce, Ryan Clouse from Winchester, John Fant from Independence, Amy Johnson from Bedford, Alison Jones from Newport, Sarah Morton from Earlysville, Katie Reames from Culpeper, Sarah Jane Thomsen from Richmond, Ryan Trusner from Stephens City, and Candice Wilson from West Point.

“I am most excited to have VALOR and the instructional cadre help strengthen me into an advocate that the agricultural industry deserves. I hope to utilize the lessons, experiences, and travel opportunities in VALOR to connect with and listen to agricultural and rural communities and then communicate with consumers, legislators, and stakeholders to build bridges and grow common ground,” said incoming fellow, Sarah Jane Thomsen, director of member services and events with the Virginia Agribusiness Council.

VALOR is one of about 40 agricultural leadership programs active in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia. Culturally appropriate, 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 captured in visits to the state and national capitals. An international experience typically crowns each VALOR program by couching Virginia agriculture in the context of world trade, cooperation, and global connectivity. This spring, the class was in Denmark and the Netherlands when called back to the U.S. as the COVID pandemic began. Previous classes have visited South Africa, Vietnam, and Argentina. The Class V destination has not been decided.

On a farmer-friendly schedule, graduating fellows meet every other month for two years to train, network, and travel throughout Virginia’s 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 our Industry” among others.

According to Seibel, “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.”

Program content and delivery must be flexible and will continue to be dynamic through these unprecedented times. Throughout the seminars, professional development content is nestled with industry tours and visits with agricultural leaders who illustrate regional realities, challenges, and innovations.

When asked to reflect on his time in the program, Virginia Tech dairy specialist, David Winston said, “the thing that surprised me the most is how much VALOR would stimulate my thinking about Virginia’s rural communities and how we need to and can support each other by stepping out of our comfort zones, listening, reflecting, and advocating.”

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

Agriculture is Virginia’s largest private industry by far, generating more than $70 billion per annum. Combined with forestry, the economic impact jumps to over $91 billion and more than 450,000 jobs for our citizens. In an increasingly crowded, urban world, leaders like these VALOR graduates are trained to communicate and promote agriculture and the communities and industries that surround it.

VALOR is open to anyone interested in promoting agriculture through decision making, problem-solving, influencing policy development, and leveraging advanced interpersonal skills. The program is housed at Virginia Tech. More information can be found at its webpage http://www.valor.alce.vt.edu/ or by emailing valor@vt.edu with further questions.