As our VALOR cohort embarked on our next adventure, we all carpooled, metro-ed or caught rides into Washington, D.C. from our rural communities. When we saw the champagne vending machine in the hotel lobby, we knew we’d made it! These next couple days would be quite a bit different than our everyday experiences. Many metro and Uber rides later, I can say the theme that surfaced for me this trip was the power and importance of networking, building relationships, and nurturing partnerships with people. Washington, D.C. is a people-centric place. From all the movers and shakers on Capitol Hill to those serving the homeless population of the city, everyone thrives through their relationships with those they encounter. I think the pandemic reminded us all of this fact that we all need each other to thrive.
I enjoyed visiting the USDA with other ag leadership cohorts from WA, KY, NM and KS to hear many officials speak about their work and their journeys to their current leadership positions. Dr. Jewel Bronough, former Deputy Secretary, emphasized how working hard, having your heart in the right place and serving people gets you noticed, so be ready for opportunities. I appreciated her service and people-oriented approach to leadership. Zach Ducheneaux, FSA Administrator, emphasized that just as having good horsemanship skills helps you work smoothly with horses, being able to read the room and decipher body language helps to identify with and empathize with people. He said, “Peoples’ perspective is their reality.” This statement is so true when working with people.
Robert Bonnie, Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation, talked about how his programs to promote conservation and agriculture involve building teams and stakeholders, and “you get nothing done alone.” Sanah Baig, Deputy Under Secretary for Research, Education, and Economics, discussed how her teams develop research to support a broad spectrum of the agriculture industry. Her advice was to “find your superpower” and be yourself in your role. She’s able to “cut through the noise, find issues, and fix them,” which I think is a great superpower for someone in D.C. to have! She encouraged us to “listen to understand, not to form an opinion.” If each of us did this on a regular basis, imagine the calming effect it would have on society. She emphasized the importance of building relationships because “they matter,” quoting Maya Angelou, “People remember how you make them feel.”
Basil Gooden, Director of State Operations for Rural Development and VALOR alum, reminded us that participating in an ag leadership program like VALOR will open up doors for us, so we need to be ready to seize the opportunities that come our way. This was an excellent opportunity for us to have exposure to these ag leaders and learn from them. I enjoyed the opportunity to interact with the members of the other state ag leadership cohorts also, who are from many different backgrounds, but all interested in the ag industry in different capacities.
It was interesting to learn from leaders in the U.S. Army for Civil Works about how serving people and collaboration are big parts of what they do. They coordinate huge infrastructure projects around the U.S. involving water infrastructure for ports and rivers, flood control and wetland habitats. The politics, planning, funding, and execution of these massive projects takes the coordination of many people with differing motives. Robyn Colosimo did an excellent job explaining how her role involves collaboration with a variety of stakeholders and ensuring smooth transition between presidential administrations. Mike Connor explained how connections matter, and his connections led him to be appointed into his current position of Assistant Secretary. Jaime Pinkham, a Washington state ag leadership alum and Principal Deputy Assistant, reminded us we need to be ready to “respond when asked” and “never overestimate what you think you know, and never underestimate what you do know.” This attitude can go a long way when collaborating with diverse teams. In their line of work they mentioned you can’t “burn a bridge over a single issue.” It takes an action enforcing mechanism to move projects forward. In other words, projects may be sidelined for a time, but when the right time comes for action, take advantage of it!
The last phase of the D.C. trip exposed our cohort to a different type of constituency. We toured the DC Central Kitchen and learned from Amy Bachman about their mission to serve the homeless population in the city and the school lunch programs. This endeavor involves so many networks of people and organizations to make it work. These include sourcing food from local farms and other suppliers, to teaching their clientele job readiness skills and culinary skills, to working with organizations to discern community needs for food. Partnerships and alliances are essential for the work they do to empower people and feed the hungry in the city. It was enlightening and encouraging to hear from Chris Bradshaw, Founder and Executive Director of Dreaming Out Loud, and Lindsey Smith, Value Chain Coordinator and VALOR alum, about the creative ways they are partnering with communities for revitalization through agriculture. They are establishing community gardens and job skills training to manage these gardens that can help people get nutritional food in the “food deserts” of the city. The outreach they are doing is vital to the people living in need in the downtown areas.
The one farm visit we did on this trip also showed the importance of a web of connections. Little Wild Things Farm operates a microgreen and edible flower CSA subscription service from a upfitted parking garage in the city and it provides these specialty greens to restaurants and other consumers. Much of their business comes by word of mouth.
From our discussions at each stop along the trip, to our tour of the Holocaust Museum and the Vietnam memorial full of names, the importance of individuals was apparent. We ended the trip at American Farm Bureau where Austin Large, a member of our cohort, explained how he serves all the members of Farm Bureau across the nation. I’m appreciative of all the people who serve in Washington, D.C. to make the voices of U.S. agriculture heard at the national level through their networks of people!