Martha A. Walker of Ringgold, Virginia, community viability specialist for the Central District Extension Office, has received Virginia Tech’s 2015 Alumni Award for Excellence in Extension.

Sponsored by the Virginia Tech Alumni Association, the Alumni Award for Excellence in Extension is presented annually to two Virginia Cooperative Extension faculty members who have made outstanding contributions to the land-grant mission of the university. One award goes to an Extension specialist, and the other is given to an Extension agent. Each award winner receives $2,000.

Walker began her position as a community viability specialist in 2005, and her appointment coincided with a growing community need for information on the reduction of energy consumption and renewable energy options due in large part to a rapid growth in energy costs. To meet that growing need, Walker developed the Virginia Energy Resource Guide and worked with fellow Extension specialist Bobby Grisso to publish fact sheets on home energy efficiencies.

Similarly, when community leaders wanted to align their economic development efforts to bio-energy production technologies, Walker worked with Virginia Tech faculty, the Virginia Farm Bureau, and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to secure a $1.2 million grant from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission for the development and commercialization of a bio-oil product using bio-feed stocks.

In 2007, Walker again was available to help area counties that needed assistance with issues related to tourism, diversification of agriculture through value-added products, visioning, and potential usage for landfill bio-energy. She worked with local government officials and created programs to strengthen rural communities and smart growth by using agriculture and forestry as engines for economic development.

Because of high unemployment rates throughout Southside Virginia in 2008, Walker engaged 16 Danville agencies and area leaders to create networking opportunities to help job seekers find new work. In just the first three months of this effort, 151 job seekers met with 20 business and agency representatives, resulting in 13 people finding new employment and seven more completing additional certification training.

Walker also heard from community leaders of the growing need for leadership, ethics and values, and community development training, as well as the need to identify those in the community qualified to hold leadership roles. To meet this need, she developed Innovative Leadership: Building Community Connections, a curriculum featuring six training modules on community leadership.

Within one year, 108 residents completed the training and began to engage with government officials. At least 20 projects were presented to local leaders.

In 2009, Walker teamed with Mike Chandler, professor emeritus of agricultural and applied economics, and the Virginia Association of Counties to teach her leadership curriculum to county elected officials. As a result, more than 50 county supervisors have graduated from the Certified Supervisor Program since its inception.

In an effort to diversify and develop new profit centers, many farms are developing agricultural attractions that invite local residents and tourists onto their land to experience a farm environment. To support this, Walker partnered with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and Virginia Tourism Corporation to develop a model agritourism training program. The program includes training on liability issues, on-farm food service regulations, tourism partnerships, and developing new ideas for on-farm tourism activities.

Since these programs were launched in 2008, more than 30 Virginia counties and more than 500 agritourism enthusiasts have participated. Walker has worked with the Shenandoah region’s Fields of Gold coalition and the New River Valley agritourism coalition as part of this effort.

Walker received her bachelor’s degree from Averett University, a master’s degree from Virginia Tech, and a Ph.D. from Old Dominion University.

Dedicated to its motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), Virginia Tech takes a hands-on, engaging approach to education, preparing scholars to be leaders in their fields and communities. As the commonwealth’s most comprehensive university and its leading research institution, Virginia Tech offers 240 undergraduate and graduate degree programs to more than 31,000 students and manages a research portfolio of $513 million. The university fulfills its land-grant mission of transforming knowledge to practice through technological leadership and by fueling economic growth and job creation locally, regionally, and across Virginia.

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