The Loudoun Soil and Water Conservation District’s Chris Van Vlack returned home from an Orlando, FL, conference Monday night in a self-described “state of euphoria.”
That’s because, after six years of trying, the 35-year old urban/ag conservationist won a national contest during the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual convention.
“‘I’m still up in the stratosphere,” Van Vlack said Tuesday morning as he contemplated his win.
He was a contestant in the Farm Bureau’s Discussion Meet program, in which participants are evaluated on an exchange of ideas and information on a pre-determined topic. “It’s not a debate. It’s designed to provide a discussion in which try to get consensus, find a solution to the problem—and the one judged to have done the best job at reaching the solution wins,” Van Vlack said.
He won the state contest Dec. 1 and was among 37 competitors nationwide to move on to the AFB convention.
Van Vlack arrived in Orlando on Friday and for the next few days, he honed his skills—through two rounds on the first day, when the questions were given to competitors the night before. On the second round, the competitors had only half an hour to prepare. For the final round, at 9 a.m. Monday, the competitors were given their questions Sunday evening.
The question for his four-member panel in the final round was: “How can we influence state and local policy that more effectively balances the social and economic interests of farmers and ranchers versus burdensome federal regulation?”
“We each got a 30-second opening statement and a one-minute closing statement. All the rest is a discussion between all of you.” Van Vlack laughed, noting that sometimes the other contestants will do all they can to not support the proposed solution. “Everyone said to us, ‘You four were the friendliest to each other we’ve seen in a final for a long time.”
At age 35 and after a half dozen years of trying, Van Vlack is thrilled to have won the national competition.
“I’m in my final year of eligibility—and I finally broke through,” he said.
In addition to his work with LSWCD, Van Vlack has a custom-hay operation between Lovettsville and Hillsboro. His day-time job involves working on state- and county-funded cost-share programs, writing farm plans for those wishing to enter the county’s land use program, and, on the urban side, working with homeowners’ associations, tree planting programs, holding rain barrel workshops and landscape planning.
Having the award announced before 6,000 people was “surreal,” he said, recalling that after his group finished Monday morning, “we were whisked into the big general convention hall and the award announced. The rest of the day was spent in radio and television interviews. It was pretty whirlwind.”
Best of all, he said, was the boost it gave Virginia. “We haven’t won Discussion Meet for more than a decade and Virginia was also runner up in the other two competitions.”
Virginia Farm Bureau Regional Field Services Representative Dana Fisher complimented Van Vlack for his “tremendous accomplishment.” Discussion Meet involves direct competition and Fisher cited Van Vlack for showing his knowledge, skill and ability, particularly for what he took from his six years’ endeavor, learning and working with the system.
“It’s a pressure packed event. We’re very proud of him.”