The Wakulla News presents 5/21/2020
Article & Photo By WES MAYBERRY
The Wakulla News Staff Writer
Les Harrison stands outside of the Wakulla County office of the UF/IFAS Extension office.
Les Harrison’s final day as director of the Wakulla County office of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) Extension is on the horizon.
He smiles at the thought of all the possibilities life presents in retirement and chuckles at how the Covid-19 pandemic has altered plans to celebrate the milestone.
“I’m probably the first person in the history of the Extension Office that’s going to have a virtual retirement party,” he said.
After eight-and-a-half years as extension director in Wakulla County, Harrison’s official last day is May 28. Looking back, he said he couldn’t have asked for a more enjoyable final chapter in his career.
“It’s been a real pleasure doing this job, and I’ll certainly miss the people more than anything else,” he said. “It’s been a real pleasure serving the citizenry of Wakulla County.”
Harrison first joined the UF/IFAS Extension in Leon County in 2006 and spent about five years there before transferring to the Wakulla County office as its new director. One of the things he’s most enjoyed over the past 14 years is the day-to-day variety.
“There are people who do the same thing over and over again for 30-plus years, but every day is different for me,” he said. “I’ll get phone calls from people who have trouble growing turf or have a bug in their tomatoes or who have a problem with livestock or with wild animals being somewhere they shouldn’t.”
It’s a job he’s certainly enjoyed. But the 67-year-old Harrison said he’s ready for retirement.
“Fortunately I’m in good health, and I want to do some traveling and see some things,” he said. “I also have a farm in Jefferson County, and I’ll be working on that.”
He is also looking forward to spending more time with his family, including his wife, Evelyn; two kids, Allie Bailey and Matthew Harrison, who live in Jacksonville and Tallahassee, respectively; and three grandsons, Ben, Gaius and Magnus Bailey. He also has three dogs.
With his career winding down, Harrison sat down with The Wakulla News for a look back at his professional life.
JOURNALISM TO AGRICULTURE
Harrison has always had a close relationship with agriculture. His maternal grandfather was a farmer in Alabama, and his mother was with the Extension Service when she was on the UF faculty. But when Harrison enrolled as a student at UF, he decided to major in journalism.
“I’ve always been a writer and photographer, so journalism school seemed like the best fit,” he said.
He graduated from UF in three years, worked for a little while afterwards and was then accepted into the agricultural economics graduate degree program at Auburn University. He was the only non-ag and non-Auburn grad in the program at the time and felt a little like an outcast. But he didn’t let that deter him, as he earned his master’s degree and went on to work in agri-industry and then the Florida Department of Agriculture for 16 years, 14 of which was in Tallahassee.
By then, he was immersed in a career in agriculture, putting his journalism skills somewhat on the back burner.
COMING TO WAKULLA
During his childhood in the early 1960s, Harrison participated in Cherry Lake 4-H Camp in Madison, Fla. It just so happened that kids from his home county of Nassau were paired with those from Wakulla to camp together. More than 50 years later, he wound up taking the director position at Wakulla County office of the UF/IFAS Extension.
“There’s a certain symmetry that all those years later, I ended up in Wakulla County,” he said.
Working for the Extension Office has been quite different from his time with the Department of Agriculture.
“When I worked for the Department of Agriculture, I did a lot of work with statistics, promotion and financial regulation,” he said. “Here, it’s much more one-on-one with getting to know people and finding out what their problems are and see how we can help them because we’re in the information business, and we’re here to help people solve their problems.”
Harrison, who serves as a member of the UF faculty, has spent his days in Wakulla doing a mix of administrative, educational and consultation work in helping people in the county with their questions and needs in the areas of agriculture, horticulture, natural resources, family and consumer sciences, marine science and youth development.
“Having a background in farm supply management, I feel particularly qualified to answer questions when it comes to plant nutrients, fertilizer, insecticides, pesticides and fungicides,” he said. “We’re very fortunate to live in a pretty nice area, and we want to help people help themselves keep things nice here.”
One of his earliest achievements in Wakulla was writing a grant for and installing the demonstration garden at the Extension Office in Crawfordville in coordination with Master Gardener volunteers.
“What we have attempted to do is show folks the effective and efficient way to shape their little piece of paradise into what they’re looking for,” Harrison said of the garden.
Other job highlights have included two-week trips to Haiti in 2017 and India in 2018 with the Farmer-to-Farmer program.
“I was selected because of my background in agri-business and my academic qualifications with a master’s degree in ag economics to work with people there and help put them in a more fiscally sound position in answering the needs of their market,” Harrison said.
Helping local people has been his favorite though.
“I’ve really enjoyed working with folks here and helping them solve their problems,” he said. “You can have all the knowledge in the world, but if you’re not helping somebody with it, then what’s the point?”
STILL A JOURNALIST
Harrison continues to scratch his itch for writing and photography through his contributions to The Wakulla News and the Wakulla Neighbor publications. His first piece came about as a result of some research he did on someone’s discovery in a parking lot of what he would find out were fairy shrimp. He offered his resulting column for use in The News, and he’s been contributing articles on the outdoors, landscaping, lawn and garden and other related topics ever since. Most of the time he provides his own accompanying photographs as well.
“I’ve got enough photography skills to hopefully create an interesting image so that readers learn something,” he said.
He plans to continue providing content for The News in retirement.
“I’ve enjoyed what I’m doing, but I think it’s time to let somebody else have some fun and enjoy Wakulla County too,” Harrison said of his decision to retire.
That “somebody else” is Dr. Patrick Williams, who was approved by the Board of County Commissioners on April 20 to replace Harrison. Williams is expected to start on June 12, and Harrison believes the future of the Extension Office is in good hands.
“Patrick is very knowledgeable and friendly and is a very hands-on guy. I think he’ll be a good fit for Wakulla County,” Harrison said. “I’ll be working with him for a couple of days, and then I’ll get out of his way unless he needs my help.”
Article & Photo By WES MAYBERRY
The Wakulla News Staff Writer
|The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information, and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions, or affiliations. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Cooperative Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A&M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating