Really. When I think of women’s leadership development, large and lofty ideas come mind—things like paradigm shifts, suffrage and empowerment. So who knew that the kernels of leadership sometimes lie within little kernels of corn and grain which were inspiring enough to chart new life courses for some young women in northern Vermont?! Heather Darby, that’s who! Actually, if you look a little deeper between the field rows, it is Heather and the passion, skills, commitment, courage, and fun that she brings to both her work and life that is the true source of such inspiration.
Heather is an agronomist with University of Vermont Extension. For the past 8 years, she has led the Northwest Crops and Soils Program in conducting field research and extension education on forages, grains, oilseeds, hops, organic farming systems, soil health, and nutrient management.
This past spring, Heather took on four young women as interns–Savanna who had just completed her first year at UVM; Chantel and Amber, recent high school graduates and members of Franklin County’s Training Interns and Partnering for Success (TIPS) Program; and Katie, a high school junior. The intent, said Heather, was to “show young people all different career possibilities in agriculture…I didn’t have that opportunity growing up. Hopefully the internship would be a way to encourage them to look for jobs in Vermont once they’ve found a career path, and encourage them to advance their education by attending college.”
The interns joined the rest of the team to plant, tend, harvest, and collect data from field research trials around the state. They took soil samples. They went on farm visits. They helped organize field days. They entered data back at the office. And they wrote research reports and factsheets–all the daily tasks any Extension agronomist accomplishes during a season. To a young adult, however, the responsibility, respect and real work they were given made a life-changing difference. Katie said, “This is a lot different from school. Heather treated us on the same level, not like an intern…and she trusted us to do our projects and experiments ourselves.” Their internship experience culminated in the annual Vermont Crops and Soils Field Day, where each intern gave a presentation on her individual project to an audience of more than 170 farmers, NRCS, and other ag service providers. Intimidating for even experienced presenters, these women addressed winter canola, malting barley, silage, and leaf hoppers with professionalism and eloquence. In a word, they were remarkable.
The result of the intership? Savanna decided to change her major and is now studying to become an agronomist. Chantel is on her way to college. Amber now knows more about oilseed production that most seasoned producers. Katie, still in high school, is planning an agricultural career. And Heather–while admitting that at times it was challenging to create an ongoing, meaningful experience (“not just cheap labor”) for these eager, intelligent women–has gained the knowledge and pride that she has made a lasting difference in these women’s lives. Visit UVM Extension’s NW Crops and Soils website to learn more the work of Heather, the interns and the rest of the team. And know that leadership can sometimes start with just a kernel.