To borrow from American Revolutionary War hero, Nathan Hale, “I only regret that I have but 55 days to learn more about Virginia’s vast agriculture industry.” These are the words that echoed in my head as I headed back east down Rt. 460 from my three days with my 12 other VALOR Class III fellows in Roanoke.
Fifty-five days to learn more about myself as a leader, a motivator and an influencer. Fifty-five days to execute a virtual SWOT analysis of Virginia’s agriculture industry through seminars, meetings, field trips and discussions. Fifty-five days to evaluate the program and provide input on how to improve and sustain it. And 55 days to develop the bonds with what I have been repeatedly assured will be my newest life-long friends.
That’s a lot to accomplish in about the same amount of time it takes snap beans and cucumbers to mature!
Alumni from Classes I and II all attest it can be done though. In fact I have nine letters from Class II assuring me that with a little hard work we’ll meet our goal. Now that I’m half-a-day back at my desk from my first VALOR session, I can only sit back and trust they’re right. I’m counting on it.
The Small Role I Play In Virginia’s #1 Industry
I’m Michelle Olgers, Director of Marketing and Communications for Virginia Cooperative Extension at Virginia State University’s College of Agriculture. A large part of my job is to help support and champion Virginia’s agriculture industry every day, and I’m counting on my experience in VALOR to help me be more successful at it. Not only because that’s what I get paid to do, but because it’s also a subject I’m personally passionate about. I may have been born and lived in Brooklyn, NY until I was 27 years old, but the importance of agriculture never escaped me. The work that goes into it, the life-sustaining results that come out of it, the joy it provides so many enthusiasts, and the opportunities it provides are unparalleled by any other industry. So I want to play my role in ensuring it’s an industry that stays healthy, vibrant and grows. As part of that goal, I also want to see more people who benefit daily from agriculture (can we say “everyone”?) but who work outside the industry at least marginally understand it and appreciate it.
Ag Education Vs. Geometry…Why Do We Have To Choose?
Like they so often do, a random thought ran through my head during one of this weekend’s VALOR sessions. Our K-12 educational system puts great emphasis on ensuring each high school graduate—no matter from what state, economic level or ethnicity—understands the basic concepts of geometry, sentence structure and chemistry. This is fabulous. I’m a big supporter of a well-rounded, liberal arts education. I would never advocate removing these elements from our children’s curriculum. But where is the mandatory agriculture lesson? Why aren’t our children taking SOL tests on basic ag concepts? The reality is, agriculture is going to have a more visible impact on their their daily lives than geometry or knowing the date of the Crimean War ever will. (It’s 1853-56 in case you forgot.) Understanding where their food comes from in order to make informed political and personal decisions as adults is more useful, I argue, than being taught how to accurately decipher Mark Twain’s symbolism in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Have we really provided our children a well-rounded education if they walk away with a high school diploma and yet don’t know where the food on their lunch tray comes from? I don’t think the answer lies in substituting one subject for another, but in re-evaluating what it is important to know and teaching that in order for our citizens to lead productive and happy lives. The alternative is fostering a growing ignorance that can only do damage to Virginia’s leading industry, especially as the gap grows of what’s now two to four generations between most of today’s students and farm life.
Not Sure Where I’m Going, But I’m Sure It’s Up
I’m not sure yet how VALOR is going to make me more effective at supporting agriculture in Virginia. I suppose I still have a lot to learn about the industry’s infrastructure, challenges, growth opportunities and more before I can answer that. But from the conviction demonstrated by VALOR’s generous donors and the feedback from alumni, I have complete faith that after 55 days of wearing my VALOR name badge across the state and the globe, I, too, will mature like that cucumber and bare the proverbial fruit that will nourish Virginia’s agriculture industry.