The producer was looking to do the right thing. He had a dead animal on his hands, a casualty of Irma.
So he asked the person everyone in Highlands County would ask, Laurie Hurner, how to dispose of it. She took it to county emergency management officials.
But “everyone” meant county officials, too. Hurner’s question boomeranged right back to her – several times. It seems that any official who had the question land in his or her inbox had the same thought: Ask Laurie.
That’s how it goes when you’re a community’s clearinghouse for all things ag. In other words, an Extension director.
It’s not that Hurner always knows the answers, said Scott Kirouac, a former Highlands County Farm Bureau president. She doesn’t need to, because as the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Highlands County Extension director, she knows the people who do.
In the case of the animal casualty, Hurner eventually tracked down a state environmental official whom she put in touch with the producer. More often, it involves bringing the expertise of UF/IFAS to Sebring or Avon Park.
Highlands County farmers and ranchers know that when they call Hurner, they’re calling the UF/IFAS faculty at the Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred, the Range Cattle Research and Education Center in Ona and the 20-plus academic departments in Gainesville.
Hurner has been the Highlands County citrus agent for the past five years, and the director for nearly three. In a sense, though, she was born into the Extension business, the daughter of the Highlands County citrus agent. Her dad, Tim, had a 30-year career in the UF/IFAS county Extension office in Sebring, and he held both the jobs that Laurie does now.
She’s the fifth generation of Hurners in Florida agriculture. She grew up a 4-H kid, went off to college and studied citrus.
Having know-how in the grove wasn’t enough for her to serve her community, she decided. So she earned a graduate degree at UF in agricultural education and communication. And she was selected from a field of more than 100 candidates to join a 30-member class in the UF/IFAS Wedgworth Leadership Institute.
Wedgworth continued her education in how to be resourceful and expanded the network of answer people she could call on when a producer called her.
It came in handy in more ways than one after Irma. Hurner organized a laundry brigade to wash the clothes of visiting utility workers laboring long hours to restore power after the hurricane. The women were going through too much of their own money at the laundromat.
Hurner put the call out to a fellow Wedgworth alumnus, and the next day someone showed up at the laundromat with $200 worth of quarters. “I’m from Wedgworth,” he said, handed over the quarters, and left.
Kirouac doesn’t hand out compliments willy-nilly. In fact, before Hurner was appointed director, Kirouac came up to Gainesville to see me to offer input about Extension. Let’s just say it wasn’t all complimentary.
Hurner invited Kirouac and others to her office as soon as she became director. She wanted their input as she assembled a team of agents. Local producers were in on helping her identify people with the knowledge and the service ethic to support Farm Bureau members and the rest of the local agricultural community.
Today Kirouac has different advice for me. “Hang on to her as long as you can,” he says of Hurner. We intend to. I’m optimistic we will, because UF, Highlands County, citrus and farmers and ranchers all have a hold on her. She’s the right person in the right job.
And what to do with a dead animal? It’s not the question that’s important to me. What really matters to me is that when you have questions, you call your UF/IFAS Extension agent.
Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.