Bailey Watson, a senior at Virginia Tech, earned first place in Virginia Farm Bureau Federation’s 15th Annual Collegiate Young Farmers Discussion Meet, held Nov. 11 in Blacksburg.
First runner-up was Kate Shifflett, a junior at Virginia Tech. Other finalists were Maddie Moore, also a junior at Virginia Tech, and Jewel Raines, a first-year student at Virginia Highlands Community College.
The Collegiate Discussion Meet competition is designed to simulate a roundtable committee meeting in which discussion, cooperation and active participation are expected from each contestant. Competitors are judged on their discussion skills, understanding of important agricultural issues and ability to build consensus.
In this year’s competition, 12 Virginia-based college students discussed three pre-determined topics—economic and infrastructure challenges faced by young farmers; off-farm work-life balance; and policies and programs to limit supply chain disruptions.
In the final round, the four finalists shared ideas on how farmers can continue to shape climate initiatives through innovative agricultural practices and carbon-sequestration systems while improving public perception of efforts to reduce emissions.
Sharing real agriculture stories and empathizing with consumers and changing their perceptions starts at the interpersonal level, Watson said.
“To get your point across, no matter what you’re standing up for, you have to build relationships,” she said. “The everyday consumer is so disconnected from agriculture that they may not know the positives. But Farm Bureau has platforms that reach from the county, state to national levels.”
Programs like county Farm Bureau women’s leadership committees and Virginia Agriculture in the Classroom are mechanisms for sharing farmers’ climate-smart practices with the public, Watson added.
With U.S. agriculture contributing to 10% of carbon emissions, it’s easy to place blame on the industry, Shifflett said. While agriculture does not emit carbon at the levels of some other industries, competitors discussed how farmers still hold themselves accountable by implementing carbon-capturing techniques.
Watson, who grew up in Wythe County, is majoring in animal and poultry sciences with a minor in agribusiness. She’s considering graduate school and a possible career in policy development.
Her family runs a beef cow-calf operation, raising purebred Simmental and SimAngus cattle. “My family has always been involved in agriculture, and I’ve always had a passion for it,” Watson said. She previously competed in VFBF Youth Discussion Meets in high school. “It’s really built my skills!” she said.
Runner-up Shifflett is majoring in animal and poultry sciences with emphasis on the business and production of livestock, considering a career in livestock grading or meat processing. She grew up in Page County on a small cow-calf operation and competed in livestock shows.
“Ever since I realized I would need to have a job someday, I knew it would be in ag,” she said.
The state winner is awarded a $500 prize from Southern Farm Life Insurance Co. and VFBF Young Farmers. Watson also can receive up to $2,000 in scholarships, and she and Shifflett earned a travel package to the American Farm Bureau Federation Young Farmers & Ranchers Collegiate Discussion Meet, to be held in March in Jacksonville, Florida. All competitors earned cash prizes from VFBF.
With 133,000 members in 88 county Farm Bureaus, VFBF is Virginia’s largest farmers’ advocacy group. Farm Bureau is a non-governmental, nonpartisan, voluntary organization committed to supporting Virginia’s agriculture industry.