It’s a call that Jennifer Bearden loves to get. It’s the “can-you-make-this-happen?” call.
It means a lot to Bearden because it’s from the president of the Okaloosa County Farm Bureau. As the county’s Extension ag agent, having the farming community’s leader ask her for a favor is validation of her work.
But it goes a little deeper than that for a daughter of Okaloosa. She’s known Keith Free since she was born. He has been a board member since she was a young girl. With this call, he treats her not as his daughter’s lifelong friend but as a fellow community leader. It means he trusts her with the story of local agriculture.
Bearden earned that trust over decades. She grew up knowing she wanted a career in agriculture in Okaloosa County. And she helped Free’s daughter, Molly Huffman, decide she wanted the same thing.
Huffman had started her accounting and bookkeeping career in real estate. But the Farm Bureau kept asking her for help. At first, it was on piecemeal projects helping the Farm Bureau’s longtime county secretary, Miss Kitty.
When Miss Kitty retired, a number of people asked Huffman to apply for the job. Only one of them could speak as someone who had been a friend for as long as they both could remember. Jennifer had left home for the University of Florida and kept her promise to herself to return to serve the local agricultural community.
Jennifer’s pitch to Molly was that the Farm Bureau is who you are. This is your roots. And Molly Huffman is today the county secretary.
Bearden and Huffman, along with Susan Holley of the Yellow River Soil and Water Conservation District, are the driving forces of the Farm Bureau’s women’s committee that organizes three big annual events that bring the community together around agriculture.
There’s AgVentures, in which 800 kids visit farmers to learn about crops, pests, soil, and more. Sometimes Jennifer works one of the stations herself.
There’s Ag Literacy Day, which under Molly and Jennifer’s leadership has grown into days in which farmers go to kids in their classrooms and read farm-themed stories. There’s Legislative Farm Tour Day, where Jennifer has educated a congressman, legislative aides and other policy makers about wildlife damage to agriculture, bees, drones and other important issues.
To communicate so effectively with the public, Jennifer needs to communicate effectively with the Farm Bureau. That’s why she’s at every county Farm Bureau meeting, every women’s committee meeting, every meeting of the Extension advisory board whose members include Free and other Farm Bureau members.
Jennifer and Molly exemplify how in communities across Florida, IFAS Extension and the Farm Bureau are such close partners because they’re bound up by personal relationships.
We don’t expect every Extension agent to be a homegrown local with personal ties to Farm Bureau leadership. We do recommend that agents become Farm Bureau members, and we’re encouraged to see those who weren’t already members joining one of our most valued partner organizations.
Bearden doesn’t stop communicating with the Farm Bureau even when she goes out on Friday night. It’s a social call, but inevitably the conversation will turn to shop talk when Jennifer and Molly are noshing on chips and salsa at Azteca.
Bearden also sends Molly a regular column for the OCFB newsletter.
Downtown Crestview may very well have the state’s smallest parade. It’s two tractors and a police escort. So not just anyone gets to drive.
Free drives the lead vehicle. For the second tractor, he wants someone he trusts with the Farm Bureau story, since that person will be telling it on Main Street for all the community to see. So he calls Bearden.
It’s that call she loves to get. It’s another chance to tell the story of farming, which she does with a firm grip on the microphone, the pen or in this case, the steering wheel.
So often, the way Bearden tells the story is through the Farm Bureau. Because from her earliest memory, there’s never really been a better way to tell it.
Story by Jack Payne
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.