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- Show Notes
On this episode, Jenny Kreisher is joined by Gail Yeiser, former Assistant to the Dean at University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (AGNR). During her decades long career at UMD, Gail not only developed long-lasting partnerships with many local and statewide organizations, but she grew the College’s alumni group, many of whom she keeps in touch with today. Gail remains a staple in Maryland agriculture, serving on several Boards, including our own Farm Credit Foundation for Agricultural Advancement.
Welcome back to the Farm Credit AgVocates podcast. I'm your host Jenny Kreisher, Director of Communications at MidAtlantic Farm Credit. I'm joined today by someone many of you are likely very familiar with, Gail Yeiser.
Gail is a staple in the agricultural community here in Maryland. From a young age Gail’s been immersed in agriculture and her commitment to the industry only grew as she embarked on her career path. Upon earning her master's degree in Agricultural Extension education from the University of Maryland, Gail never left. She began an incredible career there, retiring in 2017, and her legacy still lives on.
I'm really excited to learn more about her journey and the impact she's made on all who have been fortunate to work with her. Thank you so much for joining me today, Gail.
Well, thank you, Jenny. This is a wonderful opportunity.
Gail's Background in Ag
Before we get started, could you tell our audience a little bit of your backstory?
Can you tell us where you grew up and how you got involved in agriculture?
I grew up in Montgomery County in what was then a rural area near Silver Spring. It's now not rural at all, but I grew up in Montgomery County. Both of my parents had been raised on farms. My mother grew up in Hartford County and my father in Washington County.
Part of our routine growing up was going to one of their two family farms every other Saturday. Even after my sister and I got involved with 4-H, Girl Scouts and sports, we still went to the family farms fairly often.
My father was in the College of Agriculture at the University of Maryland. That was part of my being and my growing up. My mom was a nurse, but never really forgot her Ag background. I got involved in 4-H and that's how I got involved and kept involved in agriculture.
That's so funny you kind of almost followed in your father's footsteps.
Did you want to get into Ag education when you were younger or what did you see yourself doing as you grew up?
When I was in 4-H, my girls club was very active in some of the more traditional home economics kind of projects, but I was always very drawn to the Ag side of 4-H. My 4-H extension agent in Montgomery County, was very supportive of all of us.
Through our senior council, what would now be called an older youth club, I got to know a lot of my fellow 4-Hers around Montgomery County and really wanted to pursue a career in extension education because of my leader, Karen.
My undergrad was in the closest thing that I could find to extension education without taking chemistry and actually being an Ag major. At Maryland that was in the College of Home Economics, it has since changed its name to Human Ecology. I was a Family and Community Development major. It offered lot of those things that were appealing about extension, without the chemistry of being an Ag major. I wasn't the strongest science student, to say at least.
I don't blame you there. I do not miss chemistry class, that's for sure.
How did you settle on University of Maryland? Did you go there because dad worked there or did you decide on that for another reason?
For my undergrad it came down to in-state tuition. My dad didn't have tuition remission as some faculty members do now, so he told my sister and I, "You go out of state, it's on your dime, so have a good time." Maryland looked really appealing and it did have what I wanted. Yes, I was familiar, but then I also remember being really scared driving to campus the first day as a student.
When I graduated, I married a naval officer, so for a few years I followed his career. While we were stationed in Maine, I decided I wanted to go back for a master's and at that point, extension in every state was beginning to require master's degrees for entry level jobs. I actually started my master's at the University of Southern Maine. He got an assignment to the Naval Academy, so coming back to Maryland for my master's in Extension Education was really natural. We came home together. He was born at Bethesda Naval Hospital, raised in Syracuse, New York, but very proudly calls himself a Marylander now.
You came full circle. That's actually really cool.
Upon graduating with your master's, you jumped right into a career actually at University of Maryland.
Could you tell us a little bit about how that opportunity came about and how you knew that that was the right fit for you?
Gail's Career at University of Maryland
As I was finishing my master's, Dr. Ron Seibel was the director of the two year program, the Institute of Applied Agriculture, and he had taught some of the extension education classes.
At that time, it was mostly the punch card computer science classes, which scared all of us to pieces. As I was finishing up my master's, he had an opening at the Institute of Applied Agriculture, a combined administrative and teaching position. The administrative piece was student recruitment, student admissions, and orientation. It was convenient, but it also had a lot of things that I liked about extension, but maybe not quite as many night meetings that I realized a lot of my friends that went into 4-H extension work in particular were dealing with. It was a wonderful combination of working with youth, working with their parents, working with other faculty, but also a statewide mission and opportunity.
One thing that I absolutely love about your story is that you never left the University of Maryland. You made it really a lifelong career for you.
Can you walk us through that first position there, what your career path at the University was, and did you ever consider going anywhere else?
Did you ever maybe look for another opportunity or were you approached about another opportunity?
I was very fortunate that Dr. Seibel trusted me as a fairly young and new professional with a lot of responsibility in that student records and student services position. I was also still married, and I am still married, to my husband and his naval career took us to Rhode Island at one point for the Naval War College.
I resigned from the university for a few years, but Dr. Seibel and some of his other colleagues kept me connected. I did some special projects long distance. We were based in California for three years, so when I would come in to see my parents and my friends, it was always overlapping the Maryland Agricultural Teachers meetings. I was on some version of a contract, so I did some of the administrative work for that organization and that conference every summer while we were physically living away.
When we moved back to Maryland, Rusty had a Pentagon job. Ron and I talked and he had a halftime position available and I had a young baby. I came back to the Institute of Applied Agriculture halftime, working with alumni relations and some of those activities for the Institute, as well as the College of Agriculture.
At one point, we had a very brief international tour to Bermuda and it was during the 1990 recession. I negotiated an unpaid leave of absence if I continued to do the Annual Alumni Dinner and the Alumni Newsletters for the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Dean Paul Mizuki agreed to that, which I still find remarkable, but wonderful.
When we came back from Bermuda in 1992, I did join the Dean’s staff, though I never left the Institute of Applied Agriculture emotionally or professionally. I was physically housed in the College of Ag and Natural Resources doing alumni relations. We had a wonderful student recruiter at the time and we worked very well together. We all worked on creating a new area called External Relations. It was alumni relations, public relations, and communications all wrapped up in one. We really worked across extension, experiment station, and academics on behalf of the college.
Challenges Along the Way
What were some of the bigger challenges you faced of going through your career path at University of Maryland?
I know sometimes there's budget issues and I know working with students can also bring a challenge.
What were some of the more memorable ones or ones that you felt made your career and showed your growth throughout that period of time?
I think unfortunately, the recession of the '90s hurt the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources very hard. Departments were closed, programs were closed and in turn, the college did take some pretty serious public relation hits.
One of the departments that was closed was the Department of Agricultural and Extension Education. Literally across the mall, the College of Human Ecology, where I earned my degree was closed. That made it tough. I valued my degrees and I still value my degrees, but administratively to see those two close, was tough. I think at that point there was a lot of damage control to do out in the industry. That yes, the college was still open for business and those programs would still be delivered, but it was a little bit of a tough sell.
Fortunately, with long term patience and perseverance, the College of Ag and Natural Resources does have an Ag Extension education program again, but it was a rocky road. A very visible and very vocal group of alumni argued that if we didn’t have the teachers in Ag science classrooms, then how could we create the next generation of agriculturalist, which was a valid argument. Working with students, my dad had always said, "If you just listen, they'll solve their own problems."
I like that.
Frequently, particularly that first week or so of classes when some of our students from either rural backgrounds or brand new to a big campus would come in questioning what they were doing there. There were a few tough times where you have to say, that maybe it isn’t right for you right now. The Institute had a lot of returning students, which was always gratifying.
I can think of one student that had been a history major, but he absolutely fell in love with the turf grass industry. He found the institute that met his needs and we were able to get him some financial assistance because he was newly married, and he's like a poster child for the returning student. That’s the good thing about agriculture in that it is open to everyone.
When I went to school, I remember a lot of my friends switching majors or taking general education courses in something you never thought you were interested, but then you found a new passion and it led to a whole other path for you.
Also during your career, I know you'd mentioned being in public relations, communications, and working on many events. You were able to form a lot of partnerships with organizations, both professionally and personally, many of which are still working with the college and you today.
What do you think allowed you to be able to build those relationships so successfully?
I had a lot of supportive deans and a lot of supportive bosses. At one point, the College of Ag had a dean who was a chemist and would ask what invites do I really need to go to and I always said, all of them. I remember inviting ourselves to exhibits, hopefully for free, at some of the smaller county fairs, just to get the word out. We would have a card table and some brochures, and just hoped to have visibility.
We would go to the Maryland Farm Bureau conventions with an exhibit, sometimes sharing it with our extension and experiment station colleagues. I remember the years that nutrient management was a hot topic at Maryland Farm Bureau, so we had college materials and extension specialists that were there and willing to talk with delegates .and family members. Patrons remember those faces. They remember that I maybe was the crazy lady from the University of Maryland that didn't know how to get them football tickets or that Bob Jayden was the extension specialist standing with me that could either answer or at least listen to their questions about nutrient management.
The other thing that I always enjoyed a lot and again had the luxury of deans and bosses telling me to go, was the invitations to career days. Agriculture is so diverse and so interesting. Some of those invitations came from our Ag science teachers who were working in the broader areas of career and technology. Some would be from middle schools where I knew they didn't want to hear about my career, but I could visit with students about opportunities in agriculture.
Those were just fun things to do. Some of those were aligned by friends and colleagues that I had been in college with and some were word of mouth. I think we still do that in the middle school where so much career awareness is happening and students sometimes don't realize that turf management and computer science can be part of agriculture and that breadth of everything in between. Those were fun things. I have made some wonderful personal friends through some of those visits over a Farm Bureau table.
Can you imagine receiving a $10,000 scholarship towards your education? Yes, you heard that correctly. The Farm Credit Foundation for Agricultural Advancement is awarding 10 scholarships worth $10,000 to local students planning to pursue a career in agriculture. To see if you fit the bill, visit fcfoundationforag.org.
AGNR Alumni Network
I know the tremendous value that groups like that can bring especially to recent grads when you're prospecting for jobs or just trying to network and build your professional networking aspect.
Why was growing the AGNR Alumni Network so important to you?
For a lot of these things that you just said; the career networking and the relationships.
At the University of Maryland where career development and career placement fell was an evolving situation. Early in my dad's career, the college took care of their own. They would call you into the office and say that they know someone that is hiring Ag communicators, so go and apply. You really can't do that anymore. You have to make things public to everyone.
At one point, the college alumni relations held our own career fair and having our own alums hire our own students was a goal, and it worked out well because you're generating the next generation.
There was a period of time that the career center on campus wanted to take the leadership on that and their intentions were good and their resources were very helpful. However, when you're inviting somebody like NASA, they have opportunities across many of our agricultural majors as well as the engineering majors. I think currently it's a nice hybrid between the college having a point person for careers, working with alums for panels or internships, as well as the resources that a campus career center can bring to websites and databases that serve lots of different students.
Socially, within our Ag industry, to build a good alumni network also feeds into our agricultural leadership. I'm always excited to see when someone is an AGNR alumni and gets elected to a board of elected or office. We're going to wave that flag very proudly.
Looking Back on Gail's Career Accomplishments
I have gotten in and out of alumni groups over the past few years, but I remember when I graduated from Penn State that was the first thing I did was join the alumni network and met with an advisor to help me with my resume. It was definitely invaluable, so I'm glad to hear that that's still going strong.
You retired not long ago. You retired in 2017.
What's a moment from your much storied career, that you look back on and feel the most proud to have accomplished?
I actually looked at my retirement remarks to kind of think that through ahead of time, to be quite honest. There were some signature events, again where those connections could be made with and for students and alumni.
One of our signature events was an annual awards dinner each spring, not only to recognize outstanding alumni, but also our outstanding students from each department and from the college as a whole. If we knew some of our alumni board members or some of our key loyal alumni were coming, we would strategically place our students with them.
One gentleman in particular, Eric Almquist, worked for an environmental consulting firm attended, so we put graduating students at his table. A young lady came up to me and said she just got a job. She got an invitation to an interview for a job at that event and ultimately got the job, which was very exciting.
The other thing that I'm very proud of is some of our signature programs at the campus wide Maryland Day, which originated as Ag Day. We did a breakfast for alumni. During the event, while you're making your omelet, you're also visiting with those in line with you. They could be your peers, some are alums, some are students, and some are scholarship recipients. Some are just alumni that want to come back and get a good start on the day. It was a wonderful blend of a cross generation event, both socially and professional.
It was kind of a crazy idea in support of the Maryland State Fair when they were changing their schedules. I worked with some of my colleagues with the Maryland Agricultural Experiment Station, the Dean's Office and the Budget Office to have a demonstration of University cows at the Maryland State Fair in the milking parlor when other dairy cattle were not on the grounds. The milking parlor picture window is always a draw, so it was great visibility for the University of Maryland.
Our student interns learned a lot, some had a dairy background, some had fair experience background, but a lot of those interns over the last 10 to 12 years didn't. The out of classroom experience, as well as a service to the Maryland State Fair, was a very rewarding project to kind of end my career on.
Well, all of those definitely illustrate your creativity when it comes to making connections with people and forming that community. I think that that's great, and they all sound like a lot of fun.
If we're not having fun, then let's not do it!
Staying Active in the Ag Community
I couldn't agree more.
You might be retired, but you definitely are still very active within the agricultural community. I know that you sit on several boards and you work with various committees.
What is it that continues to drive you to pursue your passion for this industry and forming those connections?
I think a lot of it is the people, the diversity of the industry, the opportunities that we have, and the people that have mentored me. I appreciate it all and I think it's important to give back. I also hope that in one way or another I'm mentoring the next generation. I enjoy being on these boards.
In retirement, I also enjoy being able to say that I can't make that meeting because I'll be out of town. With Zoom and some of those things, that has been possible as well. With interconnectedness of the agricultural community, I think we can be more collaborative, so that four of us aren't in different meetings four days a week, but instead we combine efforts.
A lot of it is the people that I've gotten to know, respect, work with, argue with sometimes, but then go out to dinner the next week. In the end, we are all still friends and we may disagree on some paths to a program or a solution, but we all believe in the industry. That is very inspiring to me.
We're fortunate to have you on the board of the Farm Credit Foundation for Agricultural Advancement.
What was it about the organization that appealed to you?
When I first read about it in some of the early press releases, I thought how wonderful of MidAtlantic Farm Credit to be reaching out, not just to the next generation of agriculturalists, but the new generation of agriculturalists.
I like the mission that we are supporting that little eight year old 4-Her or a four year old that knew from the start they want to do something in agriculture. The foundation board also welcomes and encourages those young people that may not have realized that they wanted to go into agriculture until they were in high school or maybe a transfer student that took an elective and the light bulb came on.
That mission to reach out in a very generous, supportive way intrigued me. As I've learned more about it, some of the outreach to community groups and some of the grants that are made to those folks, it's serious work. I worked hard reviewing those applications. I was happy to because there's just so much talent, so much interest, but also these scholarships are very generous, so you want to make sure that they are going to the appropriate folks.
The Future of Ag
As you mentioned the neat thing about the foundation is that it does draw attention to the very diverse career paths that are within agriculture now.
Where do you see the industry headed over the next 10, 20 years?
At one point in time, drones were not a thing, so it's amazing that they're very prevalent now. Where are you seeing the industry headed over the next few years?
I think the easy and very true answer, is more technology. When former students would say they wanted to go into computer science, I always told them to consider being a computer scientist for the Ag industry. Please don't dismiss your agricultural roots or your interest. I think technology of all levels, is only going to get more exciting. I think the other piece is the relationship with our consumers, our end users, and ultimately our decision makers.
We have so many choices for our food and products, so I think that area has a lot of potential for careers. Maybe because I wasn't a science person, I've latched onto this relationship piece of agriculture a little bit more. I love our heavy science folks and that again will never go away. I'm thrilled that the science side of agriculture is only going to keep expanding. The connection to human health, animal health and food health is just very exciting to me.
I'm with you. We need our science and math people because I'm like you, I'm a communicator. The career paths in those fields are very abundant.
We also need really good business people because every aspect of agriculture is a huge business. I was with some friends this weekend and I said that farmers are the biggest gamblers every year when they put that crop in. The way they manage their business, I am just in awe and I'm inspired every time I visit with a production farmer.
Advice for Aspiring Agriculturalists
What advice would you give to aspiring agriculturalists?
What were some pieces of wisdom that you would impart on the students that you worked with at UMD and what would you tell them today?
I think part of it is just to be creative and to be flexible. When students would complain that they need to take music history or English, I think those aspiring agriculturalists need to embrace the wisdom of some of the folks that have created those general education requirements. They should view those courses as helping to make them full and well-rounded citizens.
At the same time, within their majors, go for those electives that maybe don't resonate right away. Down the road, a job opportunity may relate back to that elective that you took. I did a brief stint as a bookkeeper when we were moving around with the Navy, and so much that I had learned in family finance was really being applied in that setting.
There is a school of thought regarding internship opportunities that our students have to do something different after each year. There's another school of thought of focusing on what you really enjoy. I probably come down on the side of let's do something different after each academic year to really get the breadth and depth of your own talents, your own interests, and to see what's out there.
Well I have one more question for you before we get into the final one. I mentioned earlier, I'm a Penn State Alum. I know you're Terp. We're both in the big 10 and there's a big game coming up on November 6th.
Who do you think's going to come out on top?
There is a big game coming up on November 6th. As I said earlier, my dad had been on the faculty, so I grew up in the stands in College Park, witnessing the Nittany Lions decimate the Terps, so that was tough as a child. Then, as things evolved, both of my girls chose to go to Penn State in the College of Agriculture and I learned to embrace that stadium and that culture.
Then, Maryland joined the big 10 and we've been playing each other for a while. I still would like it to be a good, fair game, but I think when all's said and done, I think Maryland will manage to win on November 6th.
All right, fair enough. Maryland's looking good this year, so you never know, an upset's always possible.
I know we don't do ties, but again, the close scores are exciting.
Oh, that's fun to have a divided household there.
We've got a lot of sports clothing in our house because my husband is still a Naval Academy supporter. We all can dress the same when we go to Navy games.
What Gail Advocates for in Agriculture
I love it.
I have one more question for you and this is the one that we ask all of our guests before we sign off for the interview.
What is it that you advocate for in agriculture?
I advocate for an understanding of how complex and diverse the agricultural industry is. I think we do a great job of talking to ourselves sometimes and maybe we don't do such an adequate job of talking to others as far as what is involved on all sides of Ag.
I think as far as being an advocate, is just for all of us to embrace that not everyone understands what all is involved. I think it is up to us to help be that translator about the Ag industry to our neighbors, to our friends, to our family members who are not as involved in the Ag industry.
That’s great. I definitely agree with you there.
I appreciate your time today. This has been a great interview. It's always nice chatting with you. I really appreciate your time.
Thank you so much. I've enjoyed meeting more MidAtlantic staff through the experience on the board and certainly the fellow board members are just a wonderful dynamic group that I really do enjoy working with.
We enjoy working with you. We're so happy to have you.
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Thanks everyone. We'll see you next time.