Women of Wedgworth

Women of Wedgworth

During the two years Leigh Ann Wynn spent in the Wedgworth Leadership Institute for Agriculture and Natural Resources, she changed jobs, changed careers, adopted a son, joined the Polk County Farm Bureau board and became chair of the UF/IFAS Extension Polk County advisory committee.

Coincidence? I’m not saying Wedgworth alone transformed her. But it put her through a great deal of self-reflection, learning about herself so she could learn how to serve (and lead) others.

Wynn herself describes it as a domino effect. Wedgworth prompted her to reflect through exercises like writing a letter to her five-years-older self. After she made one big decision to change her life, the rest seemed to follow in rapid succession.

She’s now helping students at Warner University in Lake Wales find their place in the agricultural community and the wider world.

Casey Simmons Runkles wanted nothing to do with the family farm. She fled—to business school, and then to a middle school teaching job. By her own account, she wasn’t very politically minded.

As she nears the end of her Wedgworth immersion into how to be an ag and natural resources leader, she’s director of financial operations and food safety for that family farm, E.W. Simmons Farms Inc., in Plant City, and she’s considering running for office one day.

And she has lots more female leader friends, such as Wedgworth alumna Sue Harrell of the Florida Strawberry Growers Association. She also has a tight bond with the female leader who stitches together a network that’s a who’s who of Florida agriculture, Christy Chiarelli.

Chiarelli is Wedgworth’s director. Wedgworth is not a single-gender program, but for this Women in Ag edition of Central Florida Ag News, I highlight it so that the next Wynn and Simmons Runkles and Chiarelli will seek nominations to enter the program next year.

Wedgworth celebrates 30 years of programming in 2022, and Simmons Runkles and her Class XI peers graduate in July. Applications will open in late spring 2023. Male applicants are welcome, too! For more information about the program, contact Chiarelli at ccw@ufl.edu.

The alumni I meet (and the social gatherings Chiarelli organizes are the ultimate networking environments for folks like me who are relative newcomers to Florida) all say the same thing: Wedgworth changed their life.

Each one of the 300 alumni has a different version of how it changed his or her life. There are some commonalities, though. They got to know themselves better. They made more than two dozen close friends with whom they went through two years of multi-day sessions around Florida, team-building exercises, and national and international trips. They inherited a network of Wedgworth alumni who will take their calls and help them solve problems and identify opportunities.

And most felt as they exited the program that it was time to do something to pay back the family and the employer that had invested in them. We have numerous examples of alumni joining commodity association boards, running for office, getting more involved in civic life and just plain living more intentionally.

Wynn says she taps into the Wedgworth alumni network every week as she seeks internships for Warner students. She meets socially with several women from her Wedgworth class a couple of times a year. And with that drive to do something with her Wedgworth experience, she has joined a couple of local civic boards and recently became the Polk County Farm Bureau’s first female president in 37 years.

Simmons Runkles tours the state training producers on how to handle food safely. Whether she runs for office herself or not, she has a newfound appreciation for how important it is for her to connect with policymakers so that they’ll listen to her and the wider agricultural community when considering legislation.

Her Wedgworth experience also taught her to lead by telling the story of agriculture to the wider community. She urges consumers to read labels and buy local. She calls on her fellow agriculturalists to tell their personal stories, to demonstrate the safety of the food they produce with anecdotes about how they feed it to their kids.

It’s a crucial time for leadership, Simmons Runkles says. As it stands now, she can’t see a future in farming for her children. Leadership can change that, though, she says, and Wedgworth can help inspire that leadership and help leaders like her emerge.

J. 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).