by J. Scott Angle
An important way UF/IFAS supports the local blueberry industry is the development of new varieties. Another way we help is the development of new leaders.
If you’re active in the industry, this roster will sound familiar to you: Florida Blueberry Growers Association (FBGA) Executive Director Brittany Lee, former FBGA President Ryan Atwood, current board members Kyle Straughn and Michael Hill, and Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association board member and blueberry grower Chuck Allison.
Four are alumni—and Hill will soon join them—of the UF/IFAS Wedgworth Leadership Institute for Agriculture and Natural Resources. The two-year program is a series of multi-day seminars throughout the state examining complex issues in agriculture and natural resources.
It’s not just what they know as a result of having been through the program.; it’s who they know. They form tight bonds with classmates and even alumni from other classes. They push each other to do more and serve more.
For example, four years ago was not the right time for Lee to become FBGA president. That is, until Atwood convinced her that it’s always the right time to step up and lead.
In addition to his work in support of the Florida blueberry industry, what made Atwood so persuasive was that he was a fellow Wedgworth alum.
In fact, Lee had nominated Atwood for Wedgworth. He returned the favor by nominating her for FBGA president. Lee demurred. She’d just become a mother weeks before, and she was dealing with saving her crop from a freeze. With six words, he changed her mind.
“That’s not very Wedgworth of you,” Atwood told Lee. The rest is association history. Lee served three years as president and then became the association’s first and only executive director. Atwood succeeded her as president.
Wedgworth isn’t just a blueberry thing. Strawberry leaders like Sue Harrell of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association is an alumna, and Casey Simmons-Runkles of E.W. Simmons Farms is about to become one.
The program has helped mold Hillsborough and Polk counties agricultural leaders who include Carl Bauman and John Bertram of Lykes Bros., Marshall Sewell of Bayer Crop Sciences, Leigh Ann Wynn of Warner University, Tony Lopez of MetLife, and Shane Platt of Farm Credit of Central Florida.
Wedgworth celebrates 30 years of programming this year, and Class XI graduates next month. Applications for the next class will open in late spring 2023. For more information about the program, contact Christy Chiarelli at email@example.com.
Atwood had been interested in Wedgworth since his days as a UF/IFAS Extension agent. He went through FFVA’s Emerging Leader Development Program, and he’s been active in his local Farm Bureau. Yet he believes he’s done even more because of his Wedgworth experience.
As Atwood puts it, “If you’re going to take a spot in the program, you have to step up.” He stepped up by joining the St. Johns River Water Management District board to represent agriculture. He also served on the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council.
Leadership and service costs. Atwood could be busy with paid work during the many hours he spends volunteering on boards and councils. Wedgworth, too, took him away from his family and job.
But he found the program so valuable that he was willing to make yet another sacrifice. He nominated his business partner. Atwood is picking up any slack that results from Hill being away with the current Wedgworth class.
It transforms people in different ways. It helped guide current class member Morgan McKenna back into the citrus industry in Polk County and Ray Royce to a broader view of what he needed to do to lead the Highlands County Citrus Growers Association.
It inspired Simmons-Runkles, who had previously not considered herself politically minded, to talk openly about running for office some day. And it drove home for Sewell the need to be at the table where decisions are being made.
He said, “If we don’t engage, we potentially do not exist.”
- Scott Angle is the University of Florida’s Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources and leader of the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS).