What Penn State Extension Means to Me: From a Non-Agricultural Student to Today’s Extension Enologist
By: Denise M. Gardner
“I believe in the future of agriculture, with a faith born not of words, but of deeds – achievements won by the present and past generations of agriculturists; in the promise of better days through better ways, even as the better things we now enjoy have come to us from the struggles of former years.”
-E.M. Tiffany, paragraph 1 of the FFA Creed
The budget impasse in Pennsylvania, and the serious implications it may have for the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences and Penn State Extension, has led me to reflect upon these words frequently these past few days. In 9th grade, I was taught the entire FFA creed in my agricultural science class. I can remember the first time I was introduced to these words, and how they ended up changing my entire life. Today, when I hear people simplify agriculture, I am reminded of these words – this bond – led by the few who live and breathe the agricultural community.
I admit that I was not born into agriculture. I had agricultural experiences as a child as my mom’s family eventually resided in Arendtsville, Pennsylvania, and I was often exposed to picking apples, engaging in the annual apple blossom festival, and spending long weekends learning how to properly can food. My first interaction with wine can also be attributed to my parents when they stopped to tour some wineries in the Finger Lakes on our way to a family trip to Canada, if I remember correctly.
Both of my parents, however, went to school for finance. When I came home one day from school, sophomore year, I believe, declaring that I wanted to grow grapes for a living, I felt like I was changing the face of the Gardner family, leading the family onto a new path in agriculture. This was, literally, my young, coming-to-age tale, and I never turned back. I decided, then and there, to join forces with the industry that learned through toil and struggle, and I have since committed my life to one specific industry within agriculture: wine.
Recently, one of my previous professors, who also happens to be related to one of my college classmates, told me, “You are one of the best College [of Agricultural Sciences] success stories.” When I laughed at this statement, completely humbled by her words, she insisted that this was indeed true and used my life story as the reason why. I was a student from a non-agricultural household, who, with the help of my agricultural science teachers in my high school, the dedication of Penn State Extension’s viticulturist, and the support from my parents, turned into a successful Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences graduate, went onto graduate school in the agricultural sciences in Virginia, took on opportunities throughout the world to learn more about wine, and then returned to Penn State to “give back” to the wine community that believed in me as – well – a child. I tell this story because I don’t think many people understand how rewarding the investment in a young teenager can be, or how it can shape their futures, and to emphasize the role Extension has played in my life.
When I was a freshman in high school, Mark Chien was hired by Penn State Extension as the regional viticulturist in southeastern Pennsylvania. Whatever your thoughts may be with regards to Mark Chien’s contribution in the PA wine industry and Penn State Extension, there is without a doubt in my mind that I would not be the Penn State Extension Enologist today if he had not been a part of my life. Additionally, the industry and our Extension team has been at a genuine loss without a full-time Extension viticulturist since Mark left PA for a position at Oregon State University in 2014.
I met Mark and Kathy Demchak (also a part of Penn State Extension) after I spent months pestering Kathy with questions on how to grow grapevines in tissue culture. [In my defense, we were learning tissue culture techniques in our ag science classes, and I had this unusual fascination with grapes.] Eventually, I convinced Kathy and Mark to visit our high school, and they were so impressed with my interest in wine grapes that Mark offered to help us grow grapes. Within in a few months, Mark was back at our high school helping us build a small grape vineyard – trellis AND wine grapes – in the high school’s backyard, right next to the main road that passed the high school so everyone could look at it! Mark connected me with industry experts throughout my high school years: from Richard Smart in Australia to Bruce Reisch at Cornell. He introduced me to wineries, most specifically Clover Hill Winery and Manatawny Creek Winery, which supported me continuously during those high school years. Mark also enrolled me in the “Penn State Cooperative Extension Wine Grape Newsletter” – legendary emails to those in the industry, which made me feel like a collective team member. Mark’s constant support, and his frequent communication in how the Pennsylvania wine industry supported me as well, gave me the confidence to “go after” a career in agriculture – in wine – and to learn as much as I possibly could to succeed.
Mark was also a driving force behind raising funds among industry members to pay for my ~$1,000 airline ticket to go to Toulouse, France and work for Lallemand over the bulk of my summer before my freshman year of college. I remember receiving that check in the mail and seeing the list of wineries that contributed. As a young, 18-year-old, I could not believe the number of wineries that believed in me, that wanted me to succeed. I have never been more inspired in my life, and I say that with no dramatism.
I am writing this today because THIS is what Penn State Extension means to me. Penn State Extension is my high school life, a mentor, a friend. The organization hired one of the leading experts in viticulture, and that individual inspired me to a point where I became enamored with wine science and viticulture by age 16. It takes an unique individual like Mark to truly believe in a teenagers wild ideas about growing wine grapes, and it is those individuals that continue to supply the “face” for Extension today.
Due to my interaction with Extension, and my later years as a Penn State undergraduate, I learned about Land Grant Institutions. The Morril Act of 1862 – more commonly known as the Land Grant College Act – was created to ensure education to all social classes in America, including people in the fields of agriculture, home economics, mechanical arts, and other practical, applied professions. The purpose was to teach these applied skills to the people and lead in the progression of the U.S. into the force that it is today. In 1914, the Smith-Lever Act was passed to initiate funding for Cooperative Extension – the outreach arm that would fall under the Land Grant Institutions in order to better disseminate current research to various industries, like agriculture, that would benefit from its education. The funding of these programs addressed 4H, agriculture, home economics, public policies, leadership, economic development, and coastal issues; programs that hundreds of thousands of American citizens have benefited from since its initiation. As part of this act, the state governments must match Federal appropriations.
This leads us to where we are today in the 2016 PA budget situation.
Currently, the lines in the Pennsylvania budget intended to fund Cooperative Extension and research in the College of Agricultural Sciences (which is itemized in the Land Scrip Fund under the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture) are zeroed out. These funds are not included in the appropriations for Penn State University, which often leads citizens into obscure confusion. To simplify, while Extension is associated with the university, it is funded through a separate line in the state budget.
When I left Napa Valley in 2011, several of the clients I worked with commented on the fact that I was ruining my career by returning to Pennsylvania. It’s funny to think about that now as I never felt that way. I felt as if I had finally learned enough to come back and help the people that had already invested so much in me.
The truth is, there are more people out there just like me. There are so many students influenced by Penn State Extension: from the 4-H members to those that have individualistic experiences with agriculture that led them into careers.
Sometimes, we can remain so focused on what we are not doing that we fail to see what we have done or where we have come from. So I would like to take this opportunity to highlight the changes that I have seen in Pennsylvania and Penn State since I graduated in 2007.
- Today, we have 4 students enrolled in harvest co-ops at Gallo, a leading international wine company. This is in addition to the multiple regional harvest co-ops that have been held by multiple students during previous harvest seasons. In 2007, these internship experiences did not exist for undergraduate students.
- Several of the students I have worked with have had international harvest hopping experiences: opportunities that were unheard of as of 2007.
- As the Penn State Extension Associate in enology, I sit on the Board of Directors for the ASEV-Eastern organization that devotes almost all of its time to raising funds for viticulture and enology student scholarships. In 2015, 3 of the 7 awarded $1,000 scholarships were Penn State University students that are integrating with research efforts led by local, PA-associated needs defined by the industry.
- Penn State Extension annually co-hosts the PA Wine Marketing and Research Board Symposium to highlight how the research funding, contributed by the assessment collected on Pennsylvania-produced wines impacts industry members. These projects have helped identify frost-control strategies, evaluate winemaking methods (i.e., yeast trials, pre-fermentation trials, and dealing with high pH fruit) to annually update growers on current disease and pest management practices.
- Several of Penn State’s graduates have integrated into the PA industry: not only contributing to the state economic impact associated with wine production, but also utilizing their education to change winemaking practices on a day-to-day basis. While Virginia is featured here as the head winemaker for Galer Estate Vineyards in Kennett Square, PA, this post fails to showcase the other graduates working in various wineries across the state.
- Integrated pilot scale commercial winemaking processes into student classes and research programs. In 2007, the opportunity to utilize commercial equipment beyond what had been purchased in the 1980’s-ish was not available, and our classroom experiences were limited. Today, we integrate students from pre-harvest operations through all processing operations using commercial operating procedures and analytical techniques. These experiences efficiently prepare students for real world application.
- The small “grape team” has integrated a number of online resources available to industry members: Wine & Grapes U. blog site, which features current research findings – including pest control reminders and disease management strategies in the vineyards (in real time), reviews of applicable information, a regional calendar of events pertinent to industry members, and job postings, in addition to fruit/juice/wine and equipment sales.
- The development of the Wine Quality Improvement (WQI) workshop series, which has reached over 100 Pennsylvania wineries. These workshops strive to offer hands on learning opportunities for industry members in which they can utilize the information immediately in their production facilities to integrate better quality control practices.
This is just a snap shot of the number of resources Extension personnel are working on daily to meet industry needs and better quality wine production in PA. Our work has been highlighted nationally in wine trade magazines – both Wines & Vines and the Vineyard and Winery Management magazines – and by many local radio shows, newspapers, and local publications. And this is just for wine and wine grapes!
I guess, I have written this piece as a reflection of my own experiences with Extension as an individual that has benefited from the organization and as an active employee. I hope, perhaps, that my story will inspire your story, and that, together, we can better improve awareness of this valuable organization.
I’m telling my story about Extension’s impact on my life to the legislators and I hope you also tell them your story so that we can continue to support you and others for many future years. The implications facing Penn State Extension and research in the College of Agricultural Sciences as a result of the 2016 Pennsylvania state budget crisis require serious action. If you would like to support the cause to restore funding to Penn State Extension, please visit the Ag Council’s petition here, which provides the opportunity for you to share your story: http://bty.link/2m0
Additionally, there are also opportunities to write to your local legislators (Representatives and Senators). If you do not know who your local legislators are, you may find them on this website: http://www.legis.state.pa.us/