Virginia Secretary of Agriculture Visits Highland
Wednesday’s Farm and Forestry Fair at The Highland Center in Monterey featured a number of educational opportunities, including sessions on direct meat marketing, farm transition planning, enterprise budgeting and resources for loggers. 85 attendees were present, and the events were also streamed over the internet. Those in attendance were also joined by a distinguished guest, Virginia Secretary of Agriculture Bettina Ring. Ms. Ring hails from Craig County, and is intimately familiar with the agricultural challenges faced in our remote area. She attended a meet and greet with local maple syrup producers before the Fair, and then provided the keynote address. We spoke with her afterwards.
“So my background – I certainly come to this position with a forestry and natural resources background, but with a passion for agriculture, and so I’m very honored and humbled to be serving in this position. I studied forestry at Virginia Tech and had the good fortune of starting my career with the Department of Forestry, starting in the field and them moving up into management positions. I had the opportunity then to move west to Colorado, Northern California in the non-profit world, and then coming back to oversee the tree farm program, an then serve as State Forester for the Department of Forestry. And then being appointed by Governor Northam –it’s just been a true delight to be able to work to advance agriculture and forestry in the great Commonwealth.”
She outlined the top priorities for her department.
“So I see that sort of our top three priorities fall under three buckets, if you will; promoting and enhancing, growing, supporting economic development; making sure that we’re retaining forest land and farm land; and that we’re ensuring that we have a focus on health and education – so food safety, farm-to-school programs, like we have in the Valley, being able to look at some of the food deserts and the issues we have across the state, especially in our urban areas, and being able to address that.
“So within each of those main areas, we have a number of initiatives and strategies to help move those goals and priorities forward. Just like being here today, with the Agricultural and Forestry Industrial and Development fund, we’ve been able to support projects like here at The Highland Center, being able to provide opportunities for agricultural producers and forest landowners to have a hub here, to allow small food manufacturers to take advantage of the refrigeration and the other infrastructure that’s been put in place. But to see this great collaborative and this partnership and what you’ve been able to accomplish here in this community, we want to be able to support you moving forward.”
Government oversight and participation can be viewed across the entire spectrum of good to bad, depending on individual perspective. I asked Ms. Ring her thoughts on balancing necessary oversight with potential consequences.
“It’s something that we need to think about. I think in Virginia, we’ve mostly had a non-regulatory approach to work that we do, so it’s not that more regulation is necessarily the answer. There certainly are places where you need some regulation – you look at food safety and food security, that’s really important. We want to make sure we do that appropriately, we don’t go overboard with that. There’s certainly some Federal laws that at the state level we have to help with inspections and to help make sure those are implemented and enforced.
“But thinking about listening to what the business owners need and the landowners need – very very important. And to find new creative solutions to move forward, and it doesn’t mean that it’s always a government program that’s going to help that happen. I think it’s being able to support and build resiliency within our communities and provide what’s needed as far as incentives and opportunities, for local landowners, for businesses and so forth, but not necessarily coming in with a heavy hand – carrots and not sticks.”
“I do believe that our natural resources are in need of being invested in, and I believe that we play a really important role in agriculture and forestry in supporting this nation’s security. We’re an important part of our nation’s infrastructure, and that we need to work together to make sure that we are investing in that, and we’re working in an inter-disciplinary way to make sure that we’re building healthy sustainable communities, farms and forests across the Commonwealth and the nation.”