Meet our new County Extension Director
by Liz Southers
Today I had the pleasure of interviewing Jennifer Pelham, the new director of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension Martin County. It was an exciting opportunity to talk with Jennifer because this position can be very challenging and rewarding. It functions on a higher purpose, of serving and investing in the community, and at times swimming upstream. Jennifer’s journey has taken her all over the country and we are excited that she is bringing her knowledge and experience to Martin County.
Visit us for more information on our county extension services: http://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/martin/
Liz Southers: Tell me about your background.
Jennifer Pelham: I grew up in Pennsylvania, and I went to Penn State University. I got my bachelor’s degree in agricultural business with a minor in horticulture. From there I did an internship at Disney World.
L.S.: What did you do at Disney World?
J.P.: The first internship I did was at Epcot, where I was basically a gardener, taking care of the grounds. I learned about the plants in Florida and the insects and a lot about plant identification. It was a good learning experience, for a summer internship. The following year I did a plant science internship at The Land Pavilion at Epcot. That involved growing plants hydroponically. Then I applied to the University of Florida and got my masters of agribusiness. After graduate school I went back and worked at Disney World as a gardener for a few months until I got my position with the UF as a horticulture agent for Osceola County. I was the horticulture agent there for 13 years. I oversaw all of the horticulture; commercial horticulture, the Master Gardener program, pesticide applicator training, you name it I did it in Osceola County. After that I moved to Orange County, where I was the environmental horticulturalist. I dealt with mostly home horticulture and urban horticulture. I did that for about two and a half years.
I felt like I needed some more challenging opportunities, and I always dreamed of living in Southern California, so when the position popped up I decided I would apply and I got the position. I stayed out there for about two and a half years. But, I really missed Florida.
L.S.: What was it that led to you sticking with the agriculture business? Was it your upbringing?
J.P.: That’s a good question. My father worked at Penn State University Extension. At Penn State they have the main campus, and 24 satellite campuses, and I really wanted to be on main campus. I thought there would be less competition if I applied to the college of agriculture. I figured I could always switch to another concentration later. I ended up really liking the agriculture college; it was small and had great professors.
I always thought that I would work in the AG business, for a large food company like Tropicana or something like that, in a marketing, communications or management capacity. My father said that there are always jobs in agriculture because people always have to eat. My dad wanted me to be a food scientist, because they make a great living, but I didn’t want to do all that chemistry. So, I ended up in the AG and horticulture business.
J.P.: California is interesting and different, they call their agents advisors, and the advisors actually do research also. They don’t have the specialists like the University of Florida has. If we have a turf grass question that we can’t answer as an agent, we can go to a turf grass specialist and they can help us out. In California the advisors are also the specialists.
As far as programming goes, we would only have a handful of programs a year. Everyone was very focused on their research, more than the outreach. The advisors were very few and far between, there weren’t that many. In San Diego County with a population of about four million people there are probably five advisors.
L.S.: Who have been some of your mentors along the way?
J.P.: When I first started as a young agent back in Osceola County, it was an all-women staff, and my county Extension Director, Mary Beth Salisbury, she was just the best director that I ever had. She was very involved and really pushed team work. We were a very close office and worked well together. I still really look up to her and run things past her.
Also, Eleanor Foerste, who was the agent who started the Master Gardener program in Osceola County back in 1981. She moved over to natural resources and I took her position. She was a good mentor and fostered me.
L.S.: So, they were women who wanted to help the women coming in behind them. They knew there was room for everybody.
J.P.: Of course. That’s what is important, to build up the young agents. We want them to feel like they’re a part of the office and the community, but also give them the freedom to plan and build their programs themselves, but with a little bit of guidance to make sure they’re on the right track.
L.S.: What is your first goal with this new position?
J.P.: My first goal is to really learn about Martin County and the Extension here. I want to sit down with everyone in the office, learn about their programming, what they do. Try to find ways that we can either better the program, or find out what they need to better their jobs. I want to learn the leadership of Martin County, get to know who’s who in the county government and the city. I think that’s important to establish that base.
L.S.: Is that good for us to know who those people are so we can boost our program? Or, what’s the goal with that?
J.P.: It’s good public relations. A great example is, talking about my first county Extension director; she had a great relationship with the county. She worked hard to build that relationship. We went through budget cuts in 2007, a lot of the other counties were losing positions, Broward lost a lot and Miami was fighting for their positions, and Brevard. We lost budget funds, but we never lost people. I think that’s because of the relationship she built with the county. They knew we were valuable. I think that’s what’s important. You need to show your value and your worth, and you do that by building those relationships.
L.S.: If there was one thing you learned while you were out in California that you want to bring here to Florida, what would that be?
J.P.: One thing that I admired a lot about the Master Gardeners program out there, that I would like to bring here to the Master Gardeners program of Martin County, was their outreach. They did seminars where people pay a fee and they come to classes for a whole day, and they have a marketplace where people can shop. They also make birdhouses that they sell.
Also, the master gardeners out there were really involved with school and community gardens. I would like to see if that’s a possibility. They would put on school garden seminars yearly for teachers and other school staff who want to start a garden at their school. They also did a community garden seminar for people who wanted to start a community garden.
L.S.: What is the most interesting thing about you we would not learn from your resume alone?
J.P.: I have run four marathons and about 40 half marathons. I haven’t run for a couple of years, but really want to get back into it. I ran three marathons at Disney and I did the New York City Marathon. I signed up for the Space Coast Marathon in Cocoa, that’s in November, so I have some time to get into better shape.
L.S.: Well, that was great. Thank you for your time.
J.P.: You’re welcome.