Rockville received an invitation in the mail saying he was nominated for a new Virginia Tech program called Virginia Agriculture Leaders Obtaining Results (VALOR), he had no idea his life was about to change.
“I can’t say enough about how much VALOR has done for me,” says Isbell, who was accepted into the inaugural class of the two-year program in September 2012 and will graduate from it in July 2014. “I have seen a remarkable difference in myself because of VALOR, that others have noticed. I’ve become more involved in my community and in issues facing the agriculture industry, and it has helped me make decisions that have benefited our business.”
Isbell is co-owner of Keenbell Farm, which his grandfather started in 1951. Keenbell Farm produces grass-fed beef, pastured pork, free-range chickens and eggs for about 500 customers who buy from them weekly.
Isbell was one of 10 adults in Virginia agriculture positions who made up the VALOR class, a leadership program Virginia Tech started to help adults in agriculture develop their communication, problem-solving and critical thinking skills. It also broadens their knowledge of global agriculture with trips to the Midwest, Capitol Hill and abroad.
VALOR fellows meet 12 times over two years for three-day sessions and longer trips that give them a behind-the- scenes look at agriculture.
“VALOR is impacting people in very deep ways – it has value you can’t find in a printed brochure,” says Megan Seibel, director of VALOR. “It’s a program that’s for the ag industry and owned by the ag industry. There is a spectrum of people in agriculture across Virginia, and we’re bringing them together and challenging them to look at things from a different perspective. They’re approaching their employees differently, scheduling meetings with their town council person to discuss issues and even considering running for office.”
Nine VALOR sessions take place at agricultural sites across Virginia to demonstrate how each piece of the agricultural industry fits together. Another session takes place in Washington, D.C., allowing VALOR fellows to discuss agricultural issues with legislators firsthand.
In September 2013, the group traveled to Indiana, Illinois and Michigan, making stops at farming operations, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the National FFA Headquarters, and staying with farm families. In 2014, they will take a two-week trip to Argentina to visit farms and talk with producers about how world markets influence their agricultural practices.
“As farmers, we tend to worry about things when they affect us, but we need to look beyond our own fences and see that there’s more to agriculture than what we do,” Isbell says. “We have to work with people with opposing views and learn to find common ground. Less than 2 percent of our population identifies themselves as farmers, so if we don’t team together, other people are going to make decisions for us.”
Matt Hickey is another VALOR fellow who owns Classic Carriage in Staunton and raises beef cattle. He says the greatest benefit of the program is the networking opportunities.
“We meet industry leaders and learn from their successes and failures,” Hickey says. “We’re accomplishing our goal of making positive changes in agriculture. We’re putting ourselves in sometimes uncomfortable situations to open dialogues so farmers have a place at the table.” For more information on VALOR, including application information, visit www.valor.aee.vt.edu.