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 by the University of Delaware Cooperative Extension and the Delaware Department of Agriculture as well as other sponsors such as MidAtlantic Farm Credit, Delaware Soybean Board and the Delmarva Poultry Industry, Inc.  We have a Facebook page, and soon you’ll find LEADelaware on Twitter!

Our official description, found on our website and collateral materials state, “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 influence 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 of the “next generation”? Well, that person is me — and while I am the oldest of the group, vision, enthusiasm, passion, and leadership are not age-specific qualities. Lord willing, I  have decades to learn, advocate, share and serve.  One of these topics is agriculture.  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-40s 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 toward the betterment of others. My colleagues help plants, crops, livestock, communities, and people grow. They are in short, amazing. They are my second family.
  • UD provided me with terrific on-the-job experience. But in order to pay or play it forward, I want to do it effectively, considering all points of view.  As one of our recent LEAD guests, Sen. Bryan Townsend told our group, “be committed to doing the right thing.” I felt the need to hear more diverse voices so I can honor all those voices and tell their truthful, authentic stories.
  • LEADelaware contributes to this important conversation.  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!
  • Food connects us. How it is made, produced, and processed should matter to anyone that consumes food. All of us. It should matter to those who care about food deserts, food insecurity and our environment.

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 university, it is that very notion which drove me to LEADelaware so I could learn at another level from different perspectives other than my beloved alma mater, which had been my singular source for agriculture information.

Throughout, our class of fellows have met growers, organic farmers, processors, happy producers and frustrated farmers — the latter’s state of mind concerned legislation and regulations. We watched how our $3-4 billion dollar a year poultry industry transitions from the egg to grocery package to the dinner plate or backyard grill. We have opportunities to encounter the challenges in public perception that the agriculture sector faces daily. I deal with it all the time in social media. Organic equals good,  GMOs equal evil. Well, it is not that simple.  Visit a processing plant, a family farms, large or  small,  and soon one will learn that debates and controversies over food is never nuanced. E pasiones issues and opinion unfold in real time.

Many local farmers feel misunderstood or misrepresented. I hear the defensiveness in the voices of 3rd and 4th generation family farmers who are seldom recognized for their love of their land and the environmental stewardship they practice. They are serious about  doing things right. They are eager to adopt best practices. These producers bridle with frustration when they are labeled as polluters or factory farmers. 

As LEADelaware fellows, we’ve seen the variety of locally-grown produce and the challenges moving food safely from farm to table. Delaware farmers proactively pushed forward and adopted conservation, They led by anticipating practices long webefore the high standards required by the Food Safety and Modernization Act were enacted. 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—the suburban and urban residents of that county realize the advancements made through our groundbreaking Nutrient Management legislation and what farmers accomplished by drastically reducing nutrient loads in our waterways? The data is there.  The progress since the late 1990s is astonishing. Why does one farmer, applying nutrients to 1,000 acres get the negative attention while 2,000 unregulated homeowners fertilize and lay chemicals on their half-acre lots without scrutiny?  Farmers are bigger, easier targets. 

In our January 2017 LEAD session, 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 because they fully appreciate on a basic level that farmers deliver homegrown, healthy food to local markets and local families. With all the incoming voices and interests vying for attention, do our leaders, planners, and representatives fully appreciate that nothing  is more important than making healthy affordable food and clean waters accessible to all. Supporting agriculture should be a no-brainer. A healthy farm doesn’t happen overnight. 

Whatever the organization or industry is, progress occurs when the seeds of innovation are planted, take route, sprout up, grow and thrive.  I am learning through LEAD the importance of  seeking out and weighing opinions from all perspectives. When we differ, it is vital we grasp the reasons why. Listening and exchanging divergent views are crucial. Dialogue and collaboration. Is key to  understanding. Our class approaches agricultural leadership through a variety of  professions and perspectives. They are environmental and water quality experts, a poultry veterinarian, a crop insurance and industry representatives, Extension livestock and nutrient management agents, a conservation planner,  a noxious weed manager, a farmer, and a communicator (me) who came to Cooperative Extension  years ago without a grain of agriculture experience.

 I am still green behind the ears when it comes to all the science and innovation, 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, pickles, and watermelons.
And while my body ages, my brain continues to rebel and relish. I sprout ideas and in my marrow,  cells of curiosity multiplies. I still have a sprig of green and that verdant lift prods me along. It 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 in shaping my life. LEADelaware has been my fertilizer!


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