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March 7, 2011

By Matthew J. Lohr, Commissioner, Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
Contact:  Elaine Lidholm, 804.786.7686

I’ll bet you think I’m going to start off by talking about spring, and you’re partially right. I do love spring with the baby lambs and chicks, the warmer days, the greening fields. But as Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, I am most partial to that week in mid-March that we call Virginia Agriculture Week. This year it is March 13 through 19, and there is an extra added attraction.

In 2011, Governor Robert F. McDonnell has declared March 13 – 19 Virginia Agriculture Week AND Virginia Agriculture Literacy Week. Ag Literacy Week is something brand new, and I want to thank the Agriculture in the Classroom program at Virginia Farm Bureau for starting this new tradition. They produced a book called Ready, Set GROW!, the story of life on Virginia farms. As people across the state read the book, they will take students in K – 3 on an agricultural tour of the state with Farmer Ben and his dog Sandy.

When I saw the book’s first page, I knew that we were taking a tour of agriculture as it is today, not the old-fashioned version that exists in many people’s minds. Farmer Ben is standing beside a shiny red truck reading an e-mail message on his smart phone. The writer asks what kind of things grow on Virginia farms, and then Farmer Ben and Sandy are off for a statewide tour.

If those of us in agriculture want to do the industry good service during Agriculture Week, I think we need to present agriculture in all its forms. I’ve found that a lot of people don’t want to think about agriculture as a technologically sophisticated industry, the largest in Virginia. They prefer the image of a guy in bibbed overalls, pitchfork in his hand, manure on his shoes, making a living off a few rows of butterbeans and a dozen hens.  I contend that we need to present both ends of the spectrum and all that lies between.

I don’t mean to disparage small farmers and sensibly-dressed growers. They, too, have their place in Virginia agriculture. In fact, with the increased emphasis on local foods, they are as much the face of Virginia agriculture as the woman driving a moon-buggy-like spray rig doing targeted applications via GPS. That’s the beauty of Virginia agriculture – everyone big or small has a place. And that’s why I’m excited about Ag Literacy Week.

I will be reading Ready, Set GROW! to three elementary schools, one in the city of Richmond, one in the smaller town of South Boston and a third in my home county of Rockingham.  I not only want to read to the students, I want to learn from them. I want to know what comes to their minds when I say the word agriculture.

If they are typical students, they may tell me that eggs are a dairy product. They’ll know that milk comes from cows and eggs from chickens, but they often think eggs are a dairy product because you buy them in the dairy case. My goal is for children across the state to think beyond the grocery store, to learn that the food they buy there comes from a farm before it comes from the back of the store.

Those of us who read to students won’t go in, read a book and then leave. We will talk to students about our farms and our farmers. We’ll tell them that agriculture isn’t just corn and tomatoes, wheat and soybeans. It includes livestock and seafood as well as crops, manufactured products as well as fresh-from-the-field products. It even includes tourism. Agritourism is a growing industry in Virginia, and each year we have more and more farms that invite people to come and experience farm life first-hand. I hope our visits to schools across the state spur a veritable rush to our pick-your-own farms this spring and summer.

We will encourage students and teachers to go to Virginia to find a farm near them where they can pick strawberries or pumpkins, ride a pony, get lost in a corn maze or ride in a barrel train. Some of us will even show them the new Virginia Grown Mobile App for Windows Phone 7 where they can search for farms on their phone, get door-to-door directions and be on their way within seconds to experience a day on a Virginia farm.

I invite each of you to celebrate Ag Week and Ag Literacy Week with us. You’ll find more information on Ag week on our website at For more information on Ag Literacy Week, please go to

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