Bettina Ring, Virginia’s Secretary of Agriculture & Forestry: At Home in Craig County

She’s a trailblazer, leader in agriculture and forestry, and a friend of Virginia’s electric cooperatives.

 

March-April 2019

Bettina Ring loves her job.

When she talks about her work, her face lights up.

Ring is Virginia’s Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry, the first woman to hold the title. She brings to this lofty position a genuine, deeply felt passion for the welfare of rural Virginia, its people, its work, its communities. She is, after all, a product of rural Virginia.

“I’m Bettina Ring from Craig County,” she introduces herself, with a warm smile. It’s clear that Ring, comfortable in duck boots and jeans on this wet, foggy January morning in Craig County, is something more than a high-level government worker. “I do recognize that once you’re appointed to a Cabinet position, you are then considered more of a ‘politician’; but I try not to operate like one. I’m just an individual who has spent a lot of time in public service and loves it. I care deeply about the people and the communities we serve throughout the commonwealth,” the 55-year-old says.

Ring has traveled from Richmond to Joe’s Trees in Newport to be photographed for the cover of Cooperative Living magazine in honor of National Agriculture Week (March 10-16) and Virginia Agriculture Week (March 17-23). She’s a trailblazer, a leader in agriculture and forestry, and a friend of Virginia’s electric cooperatives.

For Ring, rain or shine, it feels good to be home. “I’d rather be taking photos in the rain than sitting in my office in Richmond,” she jokes, noting that General Session is right around the corner. When that time comes, Ring will be busy championing her current initiatives, which include conserving working farms and forestland, helping rural families acquire and use tools for estate planning, helping producers become sustainable in their farm and forest practices, and integrating farmland and forestland into urban and suburban areas.

Farmland and forestland have always meant something to the poised, personable woman standing beneath an umbrella. After all, the singing creeks and whispering woods of Craig County are the sounds of home for Ring, as she spent her childhood years enjoying and exploring them.

The daughter of Keith and Betty Ring of Craig County, Ring smiles as she recalls her childhood. Her father was an electrician and eventually started his own business, Ring Electric. He also opened a couple of restaurants in New Castle later in his life. “I worked at one of the restaurants when I was in high school,” Ring says. Her mother had a career in education and worked as a teacher’s assistant at McCleary Elementary for 43 years.

Ring was also close to her grandparents, whose property was just next door to her childhood home, and has many fond memories of shelling peas and snapping green beans with her grandmother, Willie Huffman. “I was very close to my grandmother. I remember that she would always have ice box cookies in her cookie jar. [For Bettina Ring’s grandmother’s recipe, see the Commonwealth Kitchen column on page 33]. Everyone called her ‘Granny Bill’ and she was such a wonderful woman. I learned so much from her. She, along with my aunt, taught me how to fish on Barbours Creek in Craig County.”

Craig County was a special place to spend her childhood, says Ring. “Growing up in a small community, you feel very integrated in the community and you know and care about one another,” she explains.

But Craig County spoke to more than just her desire to feel part of a close-knit community of people; it also spoke to her love of the outdoors. “Just driving up Sinking Creek Valley and seeing the beautiful farmland and rolling hills, the barns and mountain scenery, it’s what makes me feel like I’m home,” she explains.

The trajectory of Ring’s career was forged early on. During high school, Ring worked for the U.S. Forest Service, New Castle Ranger District, as a youth conservation corps member and then as a crew leader. “As a child, my family had a cabin surrounded by the Jefferson National Forest where we’d go hiking and spend time outdoors as often as possible,” she says.

As a young girl, Ring was at home among the trees. She wanted to spend more time admiring them, climbing them and learning about them. “I would climb trees and my father would shake those trees, and I remember those memories so vividly from a very young age. I had a very deep connection to the land and was part of a family that had a strong land ethic,” she says.

Even now, as an adult, her face lights up when asked about her beloved trees. “Tell me what you want me to say about them, because I can really geek out about trees,” she says light-heartedly before her interview. Her favorite species of trees are the white oak and the redbud. “One of my favorite things about driving home to Craig County is seeing the dogwood trees when they’re in bloom alongside the redbuds. The contrast between the white blooms and the beautiful magenta blooms of the redbud is just gorgeous,” she says, a twinkle in her eye.

It’s this appreciation for Virginia’s agriculture and forestry that makes Ring the perfect person to serve as Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry. As secretary, she oversees and provides policy guidance to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) and the Virginia Racing Commission (VRC).

“I love my job, because I get to promote the great products we produce in the state ― Virginia’s finest food and beverages, as well as the trees we’re growing across the state. Agriculture and forestry combined produce $91 billion per year and generate over 450,000 jobs, so they’re an essential part of Virginia’s economy,” she points out.

Ring began her successful career with VDOF, where she worked 14 years. During her time with VDOF, she served as manager of the Urban and Community Forestry program, as regional forester in the Central Region, and as deputy state forester. Her career then took her to Colorado and Northern California, where she was in charge of nonprofit land conservation organizations. Eventually, Ring found her way back to Washington, D.C, when she assumed the role of senior vice president of family forests at the American Forest Foundation. In this role, she oversaw the American Tree Farm System.

Ring received gubernatorial appointments as the first female state forester in 2014 and the first female secretary of agriculture and forestry four years later.

The woman leaving her footprints in the wet soil of Craig County on this rainy January morning is forging a prominent path in the male-dominated fields of agriculture and forestry for other women to follow for years to come. Ring feels fortunate that she can help change the role women play in two of Virginia’s largest industries. “I feel very privileged to be in this profession and I don’t take being in this position for granted. I want to make sure that I provide other opportunities for other women to come behind me,” she says.

Though women have been appointed to the position in other U.S. states, the gender imbalance still very much looms large. The statistics are similar on a national level, as there has only been one female to ever serve as United States Secretary of Agriculture (Ann Veneman, 2001 to 2005). “In both agriculture and forestry, it’s certainly been a traditionally male-dominated field. When I started at Virginia Tech, there were only five females in my graduating class of 50 students. When I started my career with the Department of Forestry, there weren’t many female foresters. Now, we’re seeing more women being hired and moving into management positions. So it’s been very important to me to mentor other women entering the profession and promote diversity on all levels,” she says.

Ring spends much of her time these days shaking hands and delivering speeches, but she doesn’t forget that her roots run deep in a rural community. Says Shawn Hildebrand, CEO of Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative, “Secretary Ring is someone who is familiar with and understands the challenges facing rural areas. She has been a strong advocate in such areas as broadband. Bettina gets it, because she has lived it.” Ring is in tune with the needs of rural communities across Virginia that are served by electric cooperatives.

“Electric cooperatives are the bedrock of many rural communities across the state. I grew up familiar with Craig-Botetourt Electric Cooperative, because it provided electricity to our homes. Electric cooperatives do so much for the communities they’re based in; they do more than just provide utilities. They’re really an integral part of the thread of our rural communities ― just like forestry and agriculture,” she says. “And agriculture and forestry depend on rural electric cooperatives across the state for the services they provide.”

As the services provided by electric cooperatives continue to evolve, Ring notes the importance of having equal access to reliable internet service across the state. “My mother, who lives six miles from the Roanoke line, has only had internet service for a short period of time because it wasn’t available. We know that many rural areas still need to have that broadband access and we want to do all that we can to support local electric cooperatives, who are stepping up ― all across Virginia ― to try and do more to provide broadband internet service in the areas they serve,” she says.

Ring explains that these broadband initiatives will ultimately boost rural economies and provide more job opportunities. “Broadband access is a key issue for Virginia’s farmers, to get their products to market and take advantage of new production technologies,” she says.

Economic development continues to be one of Ring’s biggest goals in her position. “In addition, we have an aging landownership, and so we’re also coming up with ways to support families in continuing to keep forestry or agricultural land in their family, to keep it intact, wherever possible,” she says. “We need to make sure they have access to the tools to support them in doing that.”

On this day in Craig County, as the heavy rain softens to a light sprinkle, Ring takes a walk through the expansive property of Joe’s Trees, a Christmas tree farm founded by and then passed down through the family of Joe Miller Sublett. The beautiful land is dotted with more than 25,000 trees. Along the walk, Ring snaps shots of the trees with her cellphone. “So beautiful,” she says quietly, admiring a unique arborvitae tree with golden tips.

At one point, there’s an overlook where the morning fog isn’t quite as thick ― and some of the beautiful mountain scenery is visible. “Now, this is Craig County,” Ring says, smiling from beneath her umbrella. She spends a moment just soaking in the sight.

When she’s not busy being Virginia’s Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry, Ring enjoys kayaking, hiking, cooking, gardening and reading.

Says Richard Johnstone, CEO of the Virginia, Maryland & Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives, “Secretary Bettina Ring is a good friend of rural Virginia and of the electric cooperatives that serve rural Virginia. We look forward to working with her in the years ahead to make our rural communities even stronger, and to keep Virginia as a leader in agriculture and forestry.” 

Be sure to check out how to make Granny Bill’s Ice Box Cookies on page 33 and online at co-opliving.com/food/commonwealth-kitchen.