Digging into Extension: VanDeWalle Bridges Divide Between Youth, Ag Industry
Digging into Extension, a CropWatch feature series, shines a spotlight on the professionals of Nebraska Extension, highlighting their roles in extension and services they provide to Nebraska farmers and ranchers.
You could say that Brandy VanDeWalle is keeping the fountain of ag youth bubbling in Nebraska.
Raised on her family’s farm in Saline County, VanDeWalle has always felt that classic passion for agriculture. But as a child, she dreamed of being a teacher. When the time came to choose her path for college, VanDeWalle was torn —until a fellow student made her realize she could have everything.
“’Why not be an ag teacher?’’ VanDeWalle remembered her friend suggesting all those years ago. “It seemed like a perfect combination.”
After receiving her degree in agricultural education, that’s just what she did — VanDeWalle became the ag teacher at Pender Public Schools in 2002. Having grown up in 4-H Club and FFA, and earning her American FFA degree during college, it was a natural fit for VanDeWalle to take on Pender’s FFA advisor position too.
“I joke that 4-H teaches these kids about ag, and then FFA steals them and takes the credit,” VanDeWalle said with a warm laugh. “But really, they work together. And it’s rewarding when kids are doing a project, and they’ve learned a lot and are having success with it.
“(You) see them grow — see kids who are so quiet and shy, and watch them grow into their own people, into leaders.”
The call of home and family began pulling at VanDeWalle though, and not long after, an extension educator position opened up in Fillmore County. It was kismet.
“Growing up, I knew all the extension staff really well,” VanDeWalle said. “My dad has always been an extension supporter, always went to the office and developed good relationships with the extension people in and outside of his county. They got him into doing no-till and other strategies in the ‘90s.”
VanDeWalle got her own sense of the extension arena during college — after returning to earn her master’s in leadership education at the University of Lincoln-Nebraska, she partook of two extension internships.
“It opened my eyes,” she said. “I thought, ‘Wow, extension is pretty cool too.’”
So she eagerly accepted the Nebraska Extension Crops Educator position in 2005, and she’s been a mainstay in the Fillmore County Extension Office ever since.
A Dual Extension Experience
VanDeWalle’s work in those early years at Nebraska Extension diverted her from the youth ag education path she initially tread. With a new focus on risk management, she turned her attentions to on-farm research with Nebraska producers, became heavily involved in the Nebraska Agriculture Water Management Demonstration Network, and began coordinating the Farmers and Ranchers College.
“I learned a lot of things in a short amount of time,” VanDeWalle said. “I really loved it.”
About seven years ago, Nebraska Extension offered VanDeWalle the chance to bring her passions and career full circle. Without hesitation, she eagerly accepted the addition of 4-H Youth Development Extension Educator to her job description.
“I get the best of both worlds,” she explained. “I’m not strictly a crops educator anymore. And I’m not in the classroom every day, but I still have the chance to interact with kids.”
Between her two worlds, VanDeWalle’s plate is always full.
As an extension educator who specializes in irrigated crop production, she still fields calls and concerns from farmers at her office in Geneva, but her main focus today is on creating educational programming. She continues to oversee the Farmers and Ranchers College, a popular annual risk management program that includes a Cow/Calf College and a transition/succession planning workshop.
A member of the Wellness in Tough Times team, VanDeWalle also contributes to the planning and implementation of Rural Wellness initiatives, which promote mental health and wellbeing and offer a vast array of resources for Nebraskans seeking help.
As a 4-H youth development extension educator, VanDeWalle oversees three key programs that foster ag literacy for youths: the Innovation Corn Yield Challenge, Youth Crop Scouting Competition, and the Special Agronomy Project alongside fellow extension educator Aaron Nygren. She routinely engages young minds through ag literacy festivals and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs, and jumps at the chance for new opportunities as they arise, like community ag safety days for youths and families.
VanDeWalle also hosts an annual teacher development day that connects Nebraska’s ag teachers with extension educators, so they can better utilize extension’s resources in their classrooms.
“We’re helping prepare that next generation to get on the farm and learn more about crops,” she said. “While our farmers are getting older, we have to figure out how to get that younger generation knowledgeable about extension. We offer so many programs that can benefit them.”
With one foot still in crops education and the other in youth programming, VanDeWalle has a unique advantage — she brings everyone to the table.
“I feel like I’m a connector between crops educators and 4-H educators, to get kids involved in agronomy and crops and, hopefully, coming back to Nebraska,” VanDeWalle said.
This year, 4-H’ers participating in VanDeWalle’s Special Agronomy Project will research and grow tepary beans, a drought-tolerant crop native to the southwestern United States. They’ll be tasked with determining if tepary beans would be a feasible crop for Nebraska growers, analyzing the impacts of various production methods for the crop, and presenting their findings at the Nebraska State Fair. It’ll be work, but it’ll be fun, and everyone will learn something — parents, adult farmers and agvocates included. And maybe someday, it’ll benefit Nebraska agriculture too, with a new farmer or a new crop — or both. For VanDeWalle, that would be a mission completed.
“Farmers amaze me,” VanDeWalle said. “They’re some of the smartest people out there because of all the hats they wear — they have to be an economist, agronomist, know how to fix things. It’s important for kids (to get agricultural education), because there’s so much they need to know.
“It’s rewarding when you get those emails where someone says, ‘Wow, thank you so much. My kids really learned a lot.’ Whether it’s youth or adult farmers … It’s the best feeling ever when they’re able to succeed.”
Brandy VanDeWalle is a lead extension educator for Fillmore and Clay counties. To connect with her, email email@example.com, call 402-759-3712, follow her on Twitter @bvandewalle2 or through her extension blog.