Agriculture is Delaware’s largest industry, contributing nearly $8 billion in annual revenue to the state.
Until 2001, agriculture was new to me. I grew up in the northern suburbs of Wilmington, Delaware. Food in my childhood home transformed into meals in my mother’s kitchen, with the ingredients sourced from grocery stores. Growing up, southern Delaware represented the coast and recreation. “Slower Lower” was a derogatory term some northern Delawareans collectively used about Sussex County, implying a lack of sophistication when referring to the rural culture of Delaware, of which and of whom we knew very little.
A move to Sussex County coincided with a new millennium and a new career direction. Knowing how to type and how to answer phones, I applied for a position with the University of Delaware as a receptionist at the “Research and Education Center.” I assumed the name had something to do with education and possibly child care, prompted by the word “center.” Nothing in the ad prepared me for an agriculture experimental station and what would become a life-changing experience.
With no playgrounds in sight (I quickly surmised they were in the back of the building), I appeared for the interview and waited in the lobby. Lisa, a young woman wearing a pink blazer, pleasantly answered questions on the phone about child care classes. My instincts about this place were spot on!
That is, until I saw brochures on the table about planting trees around poultry houses. Until I saw men in John Deere caps, plaid shirts, blue jeans and work boots walking up and down the hallways. Until I sauntered over to a literature rack with handouts about bagworms, tomatoes and lawn care.
When Lisa got off the phone, I sheepishly asked her, “What exactly do you do here?” and she gave me her version of the University of Delaware College of Agriculture & Natural Resources’ Delaware Cooperative Extension elevator speech. I’ve since learned that explaining all that Cooperative Extension is and does in a concise, relateable way is a challenging task. But Lisa did a good job with her 1-minute synopsis.
My eyes widened in discovery of all this new information. It was a pleasant surprise. This sense of wonder must have carried me to a good first impression. For while I had the office skills required, I had zero knowledge about 4-H, a program the position would support, and only five minutes to absorb this freshly-minted awareness of Delaware agriculture and Cooperative Extension. Despite my deficits in an agriculture background, my new-found enthusiasm helped me land the job.
The enthusiasm has only increased, as has my knowledge for the culture, programs and people who together paint a portrait of Delaware agriculture. My receptionist job rapidly evolved into a vocation and career. I wanted to brag about the people I worked with. How fortunate I was to answer that ad and find a family of colleagues who supported me as I earned three degrees, AA, BA and MA, and who helped me to transition from a receptionist to staff assistant to communications specialist, and formalize my role as an agriculture cheerleader.
Yet, my feet are squarely planted in two worlds and it’s a great gift of a balanced perspective that I offer my employer and the community we serve. My history, and many of my family and friends remain rooted in an urban and suburban culture. Well-educated, involved, they represent a population engaged in the conversations about food and fiber, they’re active on social media and actively debate on topics of animal agriculture, GMOs, organic and natural foods, and other trending topics.
Not surprisingly, their consensus is that biotech is bad, and organic is the only way to go. Had I remained in New Castle County, I would likely be a champion on one side of that dialogue, but as a limited contributor with only half the story at my disposal. Meaningful conversations need to include many perspectives. More recently, to help that process along, I applied for and was accepted in Class IV (2016-2018) of LEADelaware, a two-year agriculture leadership program. This experience takes me out of land grant perspective and exposes me to the challenges and passions which drive the family farmer, the consumer, food production large and small, legislative issues, marketing and communication, and the many collateral industries and businesses which support or interact with agriculture.
Respect the choices and the voices.
I understand the concerns many people have regarding modern agriculture. I also know the great care and dedication that farmers and their families and the experts who educate them undertake to bring science and research into practical applications in order to safely and efficiently produce the food and fiber we require and enjoy. Farmers and consumers share similar values. Our understanding of agriculture must span beyond what is trending and what is fashionable and be forthright enough to include facts. I once heard a very liberal comedian, Bill Mahr, talk about “facts.” He was discussing politics, not agriculture, but his point was, and I am paraphrasing, “There are these annoying, inconvenient little things called facts. And they matter.” I agree, they do. We can’t turn them off when we don’t like the results they point to.
Conversations about farming and food production need not be hostile. There is room for choices. Agriculture’s umbrella is big enough for vegans, advocates of organic gardens and farms, and consumers who enjoy backyard barbecues grilling hot dogs, hamburgers and chicken with a side of Delaware sweet corn. One side need not demonize the other. Of course, we can and should decide how we feed ourselves, but let’s take an honest look how we are going to feed the world. It’s a real and pressing human issue.
This blog will be my approach – my First State point of view – of the panorama of the fields, the colors of crops, the warmth of people, of agriculture’s tradition, history and future. I continue to hold everyone involved in wide-eyed admiration. If a little of that rubs off, then I’ve met my goal.