It was one of those Publisher’s Clearing House winner’s moments. When Libbie Johnson got a visit from Florida Farm Bureau President John Hoblick to inform her she was a winner, she shouted, “Shut up!” in disbelief.
John knew in advance that the force of Libbie’s personality is stronger than her will to contain it. So there was no telling what she might do when he told the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences ag agent that she is the Florida Farm Bureau Extension Professional of the Year.
Escambia County Farm Bureau President Jimmy Cunningham nominated Libbie and cited her personality when asked what sets her apart from other agents. She uses direct language and colorful descriptions (she once said of another agent, “She could’ve tamed the West on her own and looked good doing it!”). She addresses people as “Brother” and “Friend.”
Of course, she does more than talk. Jimmy’s nomination has a long list of Farm Bureau activities that were made possible or better because of Libbie’s participation.
Libbie doesn’t have clients, she has friends. Early this year, she wrecked Sassy, her 14-year-old Toyota Tacoma that had logged plenty of its 330,000 miles visiting farms. Her first call was to Jimmy to come to get her. Then she called Farm Bureau Insurance, and they helped put her in another Tacoma.
For years, Libbie and Jimmy have been taking the story of local farmers to the community. Their Peanut Butter Challenge to collect jars for food pantries is a story about local peanut producers. Local Farm Bureau members supply Libbie with the five melons she signs with a Sharpie and presents annually to each county commissioner to tell the story of ag constituents.
Libbie doesn’t just want people to know about farms. She wants people to love them.
For Libbie and Jimmy, it’s important to have a young audience. Libbie wants kids to grow up to be leaders – leaders who appreciate what their constituents do to put food on tables. She’s not particular about the path the kids take to become leaders. She works just as hard to help with the Farm Bureau’s FFA events as she does to support Extension 4-H programs.
She’s been instrumental in establishing and maintaining the EscaRosa Young Farmers and Ranchers. That’s the under-35 set, and we all know it’s a crucial demographic to replenish a sector where the average age is in the upper 50s.
There’s another group of young people to whom Libbie tells the story of agriculture – young Extension agents. She wants to see more of them last the 15 years in a community that she has accrued in Escambia. Lesson one for rookie agents, she says, is to connect with your Farm Bureau board.
Farm Bureau leaders took her under their wing when she was new. They did it with grants for her programming. More importantly, they did it by including her in Farm Bureau events and projects. That helped form a bond that has attuned her to the needs of growers.
Libbie’s advice to young agents is sage. I hope our early career Extension faculty will take her up on it. In fact, Extension Dean Nick Place and I would like nothing better than to keep more of our agents, especially if they earn the Farm Bureau support that she has.
We recommend agents do as Libbie says – within reason. You probably should be sure as Libbie was that the answer will be yes if you’re calling a Farm Bureau leader for a ride if you wreck. And you better make sure it’s a sarcastic “Shut up!” if you’re talking to the state Farm Bureau president.
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.