Va. Farm Bureau Honors Young Farmers

12/21/2013 7:00 AM
By Andrew Jenner Virginia Correspondent

RICHMOND, Va. — Several young Virginia farmers were honored at an awards breakfast on the second day of the annual Virginia Farm Bureau Convention, held early this month in Richmond.

Before announcing the winners, Chris Van Vlack of the Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers Committee, called the group of finalists for each award “shining examples of young farmers in Virginia who are building a future in agriculture.”

Recognized for the Young Farmer Achievement Award — given to a farmer younger than 35 who earns the majority of his or her income from production agriculture — were Bob and Kristal Harris of Pittsylvania County.

The Harrises raise 100 acres of small grains and 22 acres of flue-cured tobacco near Chatham. The couple also run a “grandparent” poultry house on contract with Heritage Breeders, a Perdue subsidiary. The breeding stock in a grandparent poultry operation produce fertile eggs that hatch and grow into pullets. The pullets then lay the eggs that become broiler flocks, two generations removed from the grandparent flock.

Bob Harris, 33, is also a managing partner in a separate 175-acre flue-cured tobacco farm. Kristal Harris, 34, works as a business education teacher at nearby Tunstall High School.

Though Bob Harris wasn’t raised on a farm, he started working in agriculture at age 12 and in 2003, he bought his great-grandfather’s old farm, much of which had sat idle for decades. Bob Harris has been involved with the Certified Farm Seeker Program, a partnership between the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and Virginia Farm Bureau Young Farmers, which helps beginning farmers find land and provides other support. As a first-generation farmer himself, Bob Harris knows the challenges and frustrations new farmers can face, as well as its rewards.

“In the end, it’s what I love to do,” he said. “It’s not a job. It’s who I am.”

The Excellence in Agriculture Award, given to a young leader actively involved in farming but who earns the majority of his or her income from off-farm employment, went to W.P. and Amy Johnson of Bedford County. W.P. Johnson farms 400 acres of grain and 100 acres of hay with his father in Moneta and works as executive director of the Farm Service Agency in Pittsylvania County.

“It gives me promise and hope for a bright future,” he said of the awards breakfast recognizing numerous young farm leaders from across the state. “There are a lot of challenges facing agriculture, [but] with my friends and peers who you see here, it makes me feel like I’m not alone in the fight.”

By administering FSA programs in Pittsylvania County, W.P. Johnson has a special perspective on risk management — the topic of the keynote address at the Farm Bureau convention. Farming presents great opportunity, he said. Capitalizing on it, though, means being “one of the best managers in the world.”

A third award was given to Jessica Dudding, winner of the Young Farmers Discussion Meet. Dudding farms in Craig County and works as an agriculture and natural resources Extension agent in Bland and Giles counties.

In addition to cash and other prizes, all three award winners received a travel package to the American Farm Bureau Federation’s 2014 Convention this January in San Antonio, Texas, where they’ll compete on the national level for the various state awards they won.

Over the past four years, Virginia winners of the Excellence in Agriculture Award have been on a remarkable national streak, having won the national award in 2010, 2011 and 2013, as well as first runner-up in 2012.

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