Last weekend, Marty Rae Walker-Owen helped teach the heritage and tradition of West Virginia agriculture in downtown Ansted during the Ansted Hometown Heritage Festival.

This weekend, it will be a case of same message, slightly different stage.

Walker-Owen, the West Virginia Mrs. United States Agriculture, departed this week for Orlando, Florida, where she will compete in the Mrs. United States Agriculture scholarship pageant on June 24-25.

"The competition is for ages youth all the way through women promoting agriculture in their state in a national competition, and I'm going to be competing against women from all over the nation," she said. "I'm extremely excited."

In recent years as well as this coming weekend, Walker-Owen has represented the state's agriculture industry during numerous events.

Of the pageant, she says, "We do platform speaking, we do advocacy and education. The entire mission of the organization is to teach, inspire and educate. It's all about volunteerism and getting youth to learn and understand our agriculture American heritage."

Walker-Owen, of Meadow Bridge, is a district manager in administration for the Southern Conservation District in Beckley. "I'm coming up on my 15th year in working (in some fashion in the agriculture industry)," she said.

"I've been out in the schools and traveled all over the state attending schools with my Roots Run Deep platform, which is teaching kids that the roots of agriculture start as a youth, planting that seed."

She says she still sees deep interest in various agriculture concepts in today's world. In the realm of adult education in which she's involved, she knows of second- or third-generation farm family members in some situations retiring from out-of-state and returning to West Virginia to keep up or even reignite the family farming tradition. A general sustaining trend of "eating healthier and growing their own food" has caught on with many, she stressed.

Moving down the chronological ladder to the youngsters, Walker-Owen says that, in the rural elementary schools she's visited, the students "have been very excited."

"Just seeing their interest" is rewarding, she noted.

Among the discussions Walker-Owen has with students is whether or not their family has gardens, and she talks with them about various animals. As owner of her own farm on which she raises sheep, she takes a lamb onsite to schools with her, and she finds that some of the students may have been around them, but "some have never seen a sheep or a lamb."

It's key for the children to learn at a young age where their food comes from, she continued. "It's very important to me to see those gears turning (in their thought process)."

The key element of the Our Roots Run Deep platform is to allow people "to appreciate West Virginia's heritage and what we are," Walker-Owen said. And, if the younger generation is given positive direction and are inclined to gravitate toward an agriculture-related field, they can more easily pursue any manner of fields of study and/or careers in the future, ranging from farming itself to horticulture to animal science to forestry, and beyond, she said.

Just as with a main premise of her Our Roots Run Deep platform, Walker-Owen's interest in agriculture occurred at an early age. Her grandparents on both sides of the family were involved in farming. One grandfather was a timberman and ran a sawmill, then raised cows and cattle. "That's where my interest was sparked," she said.

Her parents, whether it be through gardens they raised on the farm or allowing her to engage with all kinds of animals as she was growing up, helped nurture that spark, she said.

This weekend's pageant competition will be divided into two segments. Friday is set aside as an agriculture advocacy day for the contestants, during which they will engage in promotional speaking and on-stage agriculture discussion. Saturday is geared more toward the pageant aspect of the event.

"I'm really excited to be the first person from West Virginia (to compete in the event)," said Walker-Owen. Besides spreading the news about agriculture in the Mountain State, she hopes to give others some impetus to "follow suit."

"People ought to be proud of where they're from and what they do," said Walker-Owen.

Sponsorship support for Walker-Owen comes from the Michael Gwinn Insurance Agency, her family, the Southern Conservation District and Alvarez Contractors.

Email: skeenan@register-herald.com or follow on Twitter @gb_scribe

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