New Leadership Examples from Washington State

On Wednesday, May 16th, VALOR Class III departed for our national trip to Washington State. The experience surpassed expectations. As with South Africa, I chronicled just about every stop on Instagram though I still have a few visits outstanding.[1]

The highlights and leadership examples were many. Here’s a few of the memorable ones for me in no particular order.

We received a warm welcome to the Yakima Valley by WSU Extension, including agent Frank Hendrix and his colleagues.


We spent time with a number of Washington State University Extension and Research Specialists. This included a very helpful morning meeting in Olympia with the Department of Agriculture (WSDA). I think many of us particularly enjoyed the WSDA overview of the state’s industry and departmental program responsibilities. Throughout VALOR, we’ve had several valuable opportunities to interact with VA Extension professionals, as well as staff from VDACs and the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture. Future classes could consider incorporating a more formal overview of the functions and priorities of VDACs, as well as VA Extension, as we experienced on this trip.

WSDA was one of the first stops where we met graduates from Washington AgForestry Leadership, our sister leadership program. We would meet more than a handful throughout our trip. WA AgForestry is about to welcome its 41st class and boasts an extensive alumni network that gathers periodically to work on policy issues in the state. It was hard not to envision what an expanded network of VALOR alumni classes could do one day to support agriculture and forestry in the Commonwealth!

Speaking of leadership examples and WA AgForestry, WSDA put us in touch with a grape grower, entrepreneur, and program alum, Dustin Tobin. We found ourselves with some extra time during our visit to the Yakima Valley. We called Dustin on Friday and he introduced us to one of the Willow Crest Winery vineyards where he oversees grape production on Saturday. Following an instructive visit, which included learning about collaboration within the state’s wine industry, he asked us if we’d like to tour a dairy with more 5,000 milking cows. We said “yes” immediately.

Our VALOR Class III visiting one of Willow Crest Winery’s vineyards and production locations in Prosser, WA where we met grape grower Dustin Tobin and winemaker Jon Zimmerman.
Thanks to Mesonides Dairy for giving us a tour of their dairy farm, including a state of the art composting facility.

On virtually no notice, Dustin generously devoted a significant portion of his Saturday to showing us more of this part of WA State where agriculture is big business. (Think hops, grape, and other fruit production as far as the eye can see.) I hope we have a chance to return the favor to Dustin or others.

I learned a great deal from all of our stops but two others that stood out for me include the Seattle Wholesaler Growers Market and the WSU Bread Lab. The former is cooperative of small and medium size flower growers, working together to aggregate and sell their product to wholesale customers such as event planners and retailers who understand the value and uniqueness of a locally grown product. Part of the work of the market involves educating customers on what it actually costs to produce high quality flowers on a smaller scale, including the unique product offering this can allow. Similar to a food hub that seeks to preserve product traceability and transparency, these source-identified flowers are commanding higher prices for farmers.




Market manager Molly Sadowsky gave us a tour of Seattle Wholesale Growers Markets’ beautiful warehouse.

The WSU Bread Lab: WOW. I don’t know how to sum this up in a short paragraph. At its core, the Bread Lab exists to do research on wheat and other grains that:

  • Farmers can receive a higher return on than commodity wheat
  • Can be minimally processed and successfully used in baking to create breads and pastries of superior nutritional value than those produced with white flour




Scenes from our visit to The Bread Lab

The Bread Lab’s staff includes plant breeders and a resident baker, and the lab’s influence is beginning to be felt throughout the country. This includes the Northeast where researchers, professional and home bakers, millers, farmers market managers, and many more, are embracing opportunities to test and bring to market new, whole grain products. The Bread Lab’s first resident baker, Jonathan Bethony, along with spouse Jessica Azeez, recently opened Seylou Bakery and Mill in Washington, D.C. For me, this visit, and Jonathan’s and Jessica’s business, represent that rare, potential opportunity to develop a new supply chain to the benefit of farmers and consumers. We know we can grow grain in VA and in the Mid-Atlantic. Wouldn’t it be great to have a critical mass of bakers demanding new agricultural products, and additional options for farmers who would like to diversify production and revenue streams?

From a leadership standpoint, this visit provided another window into the level of persistence, commitment, willingness to take risks that is common in farming and food-related businesses. It was also a reminder that without a vision and a willingness to keep going when people tell you that it won’t work, your enterprise probably will fail. In addition to building a new business, entrepreneurs like Jonathan and Jessica essentially need to facilitate the development of a new ecosystem of suppliers and buyers to be successful.

My last example of leadership was found among my VALOR colleagues. Two of our members are new parents and taking two weeks in South Africa was unfortunately not feasible. On this trip, however, they were there, as was one newborn, one young toddler, and two spouses!  Both parents in each of these couples are busy professionals. To watch how they navigated long days, including visits to places not always hospitable for children, was a powerful reminder of what it can mean to make a commitment to VALOR. Flexibility, good humor, patience, a willingness to “make it work” even under less than ideal circumstances at times – these are all critical leadership qualities that aren’t always highlighted when we consider different strategies for leading teams and enterprises.

Our program wrapped up on the morning of Wednesday, May 23rd with a final discussion on Simon Sinek’s book, Start with Why. Discussion of this book was peppered throughout our visit; allowing us the chance to helpfully reflect on the “Why” motivating the business, academic, and nonprofit leaders who so graciously spent time with us.

In sum, this was another invaluable learning opportunity that continues to help me focus some of my professional work. It’s hard to believe that graduation is next.

[1] My Instagram account is now private but I’d happily accept your request to “follow” me and would be delighted to follow you. Around the time of our WA State trip, I started getting daily follows from fake farmer accounts – who knew that was a thing?

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