Loving LEADelaware

You can LEAD an old dog, but will it learn new tricks?

It’s been a while since I’ve posted. Holidays, elections, grandson! Say no more. Besides working full time at the University of Delaware Elbert N. & Ann V. Carvel Research and Education Center, I’ve begun my second year as a Fellow in the LEADelaware agriculture leadership program. The program is one of 39 currently operating in the country. We are supported through the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension and the Delaware Department of Agriculture.  We have a Facebook page, and soon you’ll find LEADelaware on Twitter (we’re working on the perfect handle since the one we wanted was already taken).

Our official description, found on our website and collateral materials states, “LEADelaware is an agricultural and natural resource leadership program designed to help build the next generation of leaders within the food and fiber industries that influences our food system,our economy, and our environment.”

If you look at our Class IV pictures, you might ask, how did a baby boomer-era person get included in the mix? Well, that person is me — and while I am the oldest in the group (being a visionary is not age-specific), I hope to have decades to learn, advocate and share what I am passionate about. One of these topics is agriculuture.  Here’s why I applied to the program.

  • I have much to learn. I wasn’t born to agriculture. I grew up in the split-level suburbs of New Castle County, never giving a moment’s thought to where my food came from or the agrarian culture that produced it. Not until 2001, when in my mid 4os I …
  • Entered into a new career with the University of Delaware College of Agriculture & Natural Resources. Everything I currently know about agriculture, I learned here. I couldn’t have had a better education. First, supporting the 4-H program, then working with Extension agents and specialists in Family and Consumer Sciences and Community Development.
  • My UD colleagues supported me, giving me encouragement and flexibility to earn three degrees at UD. AA, BA in English/Journalism and Master of Arts in a journalism history project. Along the way I took 16 credits in various agriculture sciences as electives.
  • I want to pay it back. I want to pay it forward. I want to celebrate the people and programs with whom I work. People with all kinds of initials after their names who do the outreach, the research, the teaching – and not for the money – for the vocation, for the betterment of others. My colleagues help plants, crops, livestock, communities, and people grow. They are in short, amazing. My second family.
  • UD gave me a great, on-the-job experience. But in order to pay or play it forward, I want to do it right. Effectively.  As one of our recent LEAD guests, Sen. Bryan Townsend told our group, “be committed to doing the right thing.” I needed to have more diverse voices fill my head so I can honor all those voices and tell truthful, authentic stories.
  • LEADelaware adds that diversity. In order to advocate for agriculture and natural resources, I have to understand a wider perspective. Different opinions and approaches exist.
  • I am forever curious. I have a lot of questions and the answers are everywhere!

Any academic will tell you, it is better to get your degrees from different institutions. While I don’t have the luxury to attend another college or univeristy, it is that very notion which drove me to LEADelaware so I could learn at another level from somewhere other than my beloved alma mater.

Along the way my Fellows and I met growers, organic farmers, processors, farmers frustrated with legislation and regulations. We watched with amazement how our $3-4 billion dollar a year poultry industry evolves from egg to grocery package to the dinner plate or backyard grill. We hear the challenges in public perception that industry faces daily. I deal with it all the time in social media. Organic, GMO, processing plants, family farms, large and small, we’re seeing it all.

I hear the defensiveness in the voices of 3rd and 4th generation family farmers who pride themselves in their love of their land, the environmental stewardship they take seriously, and I pick up when they bridle with frustration or quiver in sadness when others label them as polluters. We’ve seen the variety of produce and how it’s grown and the challenges moving it safely from farm to table, and all that Delaware farmers have done proactively, before regulations existed, to comply with the high standards now required by the Food Safety and Modernization Act. Delaware farmers have been doing those things all along. We like being first. It’s in our history!

Does my home county of New Castle, and do the suburbanites of Wilmington and the young parents raising families in my former residences realize the advancements made through groundbreaking Nutrient Management legislation and what farmers have accomplished by drastically reducing nutrient loads in our waterways? The data is there.  The progress since the late 1990s is astonishing. Does one farmer, with 1,000 acres get the attention in the legislature that 2,000 constituents with half-acre lots command?  I wonder. I fear. Are those home-owners (and I used to be one of them) spreading their spring and fall fertilizers on their green lawns cognizant of their own individual environmental stewardship responsibilities? As we lose farmland to developments in southern Delaware, do the new out-of-state residents care about the culture that built this small but mighty Delaware?

In our most recent LEAD session – January 26 and 27, the meetings focused on state and local policy. How does our government work in Delaware? Who are the squeaky wheels and who gets the grease? Do our legislators have an appreciation for agriculture, not just because it is an $8-9 billion dollar economic driver annually to our state, but on a basic level of home-grown, healthy food delivered to local markets and local families. With all the clatter of incoming voices and interests vying for attention, do they appreciate that there can be nothing more important and sustenative than the availability of healthy affordable food and clean water? Supporting farmers sustains everyone. A healthy farm doesn’t trickle down,  it sprouts up, grows and thrives, its roots filter and anchor to everyone’s benefit. Everyone.

So, I am learning issues like this in LEAD. It is important to weigh opinions from all perspectives. When we differ, it is vital we know why, and that can only happen with dialogue and collaboration. In our class we have environmental and water quality experts, a poultry DVM, crop insurance and industry representatives, Extension livestock and nutrient management agents, conservation planner,  noxious weed manager, a farmer, and me, a communicator, still green behind the ears when it comes to ag, but green isn’t such a bad thing to be.  I bleed green for 4-H, for Extension, the green horticulture industry, the supple green of new forest growth, the green that represents environmental quality and energy innovation, and the green of financial prosperity for every farmer sowing in seasons of cover crop, soybeans, lima beans, corn and watermelons.

And while my body ages, my brain continues to rebel and relish. I sprout ideas and in my marrow curiosity multiplies. I still have a sprig of green within me, and that verdant lift prods me along, inspires me to share and celebrate others this accidental second career of mine. Farming is all about cycles, renewal and regrowth.UD planted so many well-crafted seeds. LEADelaware has been my fertilizer!

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