Advancing Diversity in Agriculture with Stephon Fitzpatrick

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Show Notes

Nick & Tessa MacDonald

Summary

On this episode of the Farm Credit AgVocates podcast, Katie Ward chats with Stephon Fitzpatrick, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Commission for Agriculture Education Excellence and the National MANRRS Graduate Student President, to talk about minorities in agriculture and educational opportunities for those wanting to pursue a career in the industry.

We also dive into how to make use of connections through networking and joining organizations in school to enhance leadership and job opportunities in agriculture.   

Links

 

Transcript

Katie Ward:

Hello, Stephon. Welcome to the podcast!

Stephon Fitzpatrick:

Hey, thank you for having me.

Katie Ward:

Thanks so much for joining us. We're really excited to sit down and talk with you this afternoon. I know our listeners are going to be really excited to hear a lot of what's going on in the Ag education world as we start back with the school year this fall.

Stephon Fitzpatrick:

Oh, definitely happy to share.

Katie Ward:

So do you want to start by just giving a background of your education and sort of your path along the way of how you chose Ag education?

History of Stephon Fitzpatrick

Stephon Fitzpatrick:

Oh, wow. You want me to kind of go into the archives? So how you doing everyone? Again my name is Stephon Fitzpatrick.

My journey through agriculture started 17 years ago, when I was in the seventh grade, it might be longer than 17, now when I think about it, I graduated high school 15 years ago in 2006. But I got involved with agriculture, through FFA and full disclaimer, the only reason I got into agriculture was because I saw that the FFA students were always on field trips.

You know, I was a great student and I wanted to kind of just get involved with what they were doing. And I'm what you consider nontraditional Ag. No one in my family is in agriculture. I'm actually one of the first-generation to pursue this particular industry. And so it wasn't till I went to high school, I went to Polytech High School in Woodside, Delaware, which was a vocational school. Out of 26 shops, I chose the environmental science shop and it was there that I realized how diverse the Ag industry was. From my background the only Ag I knew of was farming. But by getting exposed at this vocational school, I learned about landscaping, landscape design, horticulture, plant and soil science, veterinary medicine, animal science, how engineering plays into ag and how climate ties into agriculture.

I realized that this is something that I was passionate about and that I could get involved in it. So I stayed involved in FFA for my duration of my time in high school. And at the time there weren't many black and brown people that look like me that were in agriculture let alone in FFA. But because of my persistence, my passion, I ended up going to the national convention twice.

I was the first black president of my FFA chapter. And thanks to my SAE, it actually helped me win a National Ag scholarship called the USDA 1890 scholars program that gave me a full ride to Tuskegee University. It gave me a federal job five days after I graduated high school. And so at 17, I was working with the U.S. Forest Service in Wisconsin on national forest lands as a forest technician. And so through my education, I started at Tuskegee as a forestry major finished off that Delaware state and graduated with a bachelor's in Agriculture Natural Resources.

And then as I progressed in my professional and educational career, I've developed a passion for getting into the leadership component and advocating for students and partnerships. And so I completed my master's in organizational leadership management, and I'm now wrapping up at University of Maryland Eastern Shore, my doctorate in organization leadership. And so through these initiatives, I've been able to travel the world because of agriculture. I've been to Australia, Barcelona, Istanbul, Turkey and Morocco. I went to St. Kitts and all of these were to develop initiatives, to support students who are interested in pursuing agriculture and all the industries that have been sales. And so it's been very rewarding.

Now at 33 that I'm now in a position where I get to continue to advocate for black and brown people to pursue Ag and really just advocate for how diverse industry is as a whole.

Katie Ward:

Right. Wow. So those are so many impressive accolades. Congratulations on all of those. Rewinding to being the first black president. Was that for your FFA?

Stephon Fitzpatrick:

Okay. Yeah, that was for my chapter. That was for the Polytech FFA chapter in Delaware.

Katie Ward:

Oh gosh, how rewarding was that?

Stephon Fitzpatrick:

It was rewarding. It was humbling. And it was rewarding in the fact that people saw how hungry and passionate I was that I tell people agriculture is a people business and my chapter didn't see color despite us going to conventions. And there being very few black people there you know, to have that support at the state and national level in my competitions and my initiatives was something that I never forget.

Katie Ward:

Yeah. That's amazing. And it probably set the stage for your future into the MANRRS organization. Do you want to talk a little bit about yourself?

MANRRS Organization

Stephon Fitzpatrick:

Yes, definitely. So in addition to FFA being kind of where I got my Ag foundation, when I got to Tuskegee, which is a historically black college university and HBCU, I was introduced to MANRRS. MANRRS is similar to FFA and the student, the Ag supportive initiatives, but MANRRS stands for Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences. And here was the first time that I was surrounded.

I was in a position to be in an organization that the majority of the people involved were of minority ethnicities. And it let me know that I wasn't the only one because I was like the only one when I was in high school. I think my entire four years of high school, there were only four black kids in the environmental science shop. And so to be a part of an organization that has thousands of students that focuses on their professional and academic education and excellence and agriculture initiatives made me feel like I was at home. And I got involved with that in 2006.

And when I came to the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in 2018, as the coordinator for the school of Ag here, I got more involved with MANRRS as the UMES MANRRS advisor. And then now I currently serve as the graduate student president. And in this particular role, I oversee grad student initiatives on behalf of MANRRS in six regions across the United States. And through these initiatives for grad students, I pretty much help identify internships, fellowships, career opportunities, study abroad opportunities and community initiatives that help pretty much share the awareness that minorities are in fact involved in these industries. And just like you have FFA and 4-H at the table.

And especially with the climate of these organizations and companies really looking to improve DEI in agriculture MANRRS has the population of the demographic of students that they're looking for. And so I attribute a lot of my later success in my professional career with my collaborations and my public speaking and really being a true advocate for the Ag industry to MANRRS.

Katie Ward:

Yes, definitely. And I know Farm Credit has a really strong relationship with MANRRS and we really support your initiative. So for our listeners who may not know what DEI is, can you explain a little bit of that and how the Ag industry is really supporting that?

DEI

Stephon Fitzpatrick:

Definitely. So DEI is stands for Diversity Equity and Inclusion. And so historically the agriculture industry has been predominantly white. And when we talk about diversity within this industry, the average age of people in agriculture is 65 years old and they're predominantly white males. And so, you know, after the incidents that took place, you know, with George Floyd and there was a call to the Black Lives Matter movement a lot of Ag organizations were, you know, took a look at their organizational structures and said, Hey, we have to diversify our industry.

And so because of that, organizations like MANRRS have partnered to do education on how minorities have contributed to agriculture and how, when we're looking to improve our workforces that we're not just hiring students and employees that, that based on demographics to check off boxes, but to let them know that we bring just enough expertise to this industry as everyone else. And that, again, agriculture is a people business and we all have to benefit from it from the, that we wear the food that we drink our natural environments everything that we touch are involved in, in some way shape or form, whether you're it engineering, education, legal politics, everything is connected to the ag industry in some capacity. And so with DEI is not just diversifying, you know, the people part, but it's also highlighting the diversity of the industry as a whole

Katie Ward:

100%. And like you said, it's more than just checking off the boxes. It's really getting out there and telling the stories and sharing all the accomplishments of any diverse farmer in the whole country. Definitely. Yeah.

So now kind of pivoting over to your new role, you're the executive director with the Pennsylvania Commission for Ag Education Excellence. You want to give us a little background on that organization and what your role will be there.

Pennsylvania Commission for Agriculture Education Excellence

Stephon Fitzpatrick:

Sure. So thanks to the amazing work that I was doing here at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, their coordinator for the school of Agriculture and Natural Sciences. You know, it's allowed me to meet some amazing companies and organizations and moderate some panels, whether it be for Ag education, the advancement of students, what initiatives partnerships can be done to support students and pipelines from school to workforce. And so I got in touch with the Pennsylvania department of agriculture. And through those initiatives, I got to learn a lot about Ag policy and how important it is to support Ag education, you know, throughout our states.

And so PA reached out and they offered me the position as their executive director of this commission. And through this role, I pretty much get to continue a lot of the work that I was doing at the university level at the state level. And so I'll be working with K through 12 collegiate initiatives throughout the state of Pennsylvania on Ag education. And that's whether it's, you know, and that's supporting students through FFA 4-H and MANRRS and these other organizations that support students and adults to, to let them know of resources and opportunities available in the Ag industry. And I'll be doing this on a larger scale with the state of Pennsylvania.

Katie Ward:

That's amazing. It sounds like a perfect opportunity for all of your passions are tying in agriculture education and those really big leadership organizations that sort of develop the future of our industry and the youth leaders.

Stephon Fitzpatrick:

Yes, definitely.

Katie Ward:

A little bit into your background into MANRRS. I know that you were involved at UMES and then now you are the national graduate student president, what are a few programs or specific goals that you have? I believe your term is 2021 to 2022.

So what do you have sort of envisioned for this school year for your organization?

UMES National Graduate Student President

Stephon Fitzpatrick:

So my main priority is really to, to be a true advocate for opportunities for graduate students. And my experience coming from undergrad to graduate as a professional. I've noticed that when we go to these career fairs and when these organizations are sending these opportunities, they cater more to undergraduate students. And what I noticed is that graduate students are looking for those opportunities to do these fellowships and to, you know, with their experience because their advanced degrees hoping these fellowships can lead to great jobs that monetarily take care of them and do a lot of the initiatives that I'm planning, which I'm actually going to be putting together a monthly grad symposium for all MANRRS graduate students where we talk about mental health, we talk about opportunities and it gives them a safe space to talk about their research and pull ideas, because you never know what somebody is doing, how that can impact things that you're working on.

And so I'm already working with several organizations and companies to identify ways of how they can support graduate students. So also create healthy succession plans and pipeline programs to support them. And as we continue to spread the word about MANRRS, we hope that we can get MANRRS into as to as big as how FFA is, you know, FFA has hundreds of thousands of students that attend their conferences every year. And, you know, MANRRS has, you know, 5,000 that may have 10. And so there's a significant, there's a huge opportunity to continue to spread what MANRRS is and how we can be a contribution to the Ag industry as a whole.

Katie Ward:

Yeah, that's great. And on monthly symposium, sounds like a really fantastic idea. Like you said, to collaborate and to kind of have an open forum for like-minded people to get together and talk about solutions and certain issues that they're facing. And that sort of brings up another point that I wanted to make sure that we discussed is any advice on how the industry can help support Ag education specifically for graduate and or minority students.

And you kind of hit the nail on the head with just having those internship opportunities available for grad students. Is there anything else you want to elaborate on that topic, whether it may be Ag education opportunities for grad students or minority students?

Stephon Fitzpatrick:

I would, I would say this, and it really comes down to availability of resources. I think we can't just talk to, you know, these HBCUs and these schools and, you know, say, hey, we have these programs available. There has to, these companies have to provide educational resources, whether it's their marketing or, you know, whatever type of campaign they want to do to also get the community involved.

When we talk about minorities in agriculture, and we talk about the historical connotations when of how agriculture was perceived because of, you know, maybe slavery in the United States and just, you know, discrimination and you know, how, you know, black students aren't even allowed to attend some white institutions that had ag programs which led to the development of the 1890 HBCUs and things of that nature. I think when we look at how these companies now can alleviate and move forward with progression, and an advocacy is to educate communities.

You know, when you're these, these organizations should get involved with their local schools in their area and develop partnerships and come speak and come face to face. And because it's different when you have somebody on campus that sees the students on a regular basis, that just tells you students about opportunities and apply, but it makes a difference when the students can actually see the organization and they can take this information back to their parents and physically say, this organization has opportunities of things that I didn't know was available.

I know in my work here at the university, I've talked to so many parents when they've come and did a tour. And I've explained to them how broad the Ag industry is. And you're surprised that nine times out of ten, they're all, like, I didn't know that this was agriculture. I didn't know that fashion was agriculture. I didn't know that dietetics or nutrition was agriculture. You know, even though animals are Ag, people are like, I didn't know that pre vet was Ag, or you could do engineering and be in Ag. And so when you have, when you have these companies and they're looking at to what can we do to support the industry in order to support the industry, you have to support the upcoming leaders in the industry, and it starts by educating them on how you plan to support them as they pay this money to go to college and hopes of one day apply to these organizations.

Katie Ward:

Yeah, I absolutely love that. And here at Farm Credit, we agree with what you said wholeheartedly in our foundation. So we have the slogan and the hashtag that we use on social media, the other side of ag, and that often refers to other career paths in agriculture, other than working on the farm in production ag. So all of those different venues and the odds that you were just explaining, like veterinary and nutrition, dietary action, those are all what we call the other side of Ag.

And I know you were a recipient of our scholarship in 2020, so congratulations again on that. We actually have our scholarship program opening on September 24th or the 2022 scholarship coming up. So that will be fun to promote here in the next few weeks. So if you, would you want to talk a little bit about our scholarship program and the foundation and sort of have a scholarship helped you last year?

Farm Credit Scholarship Program

Stephon Fitzpatrick:

Well I do want to first start off by saying, thank you so much for that scholarship, I wasn't going to apply for it, you know, but I realized that it could benefit me. And when we talk about the other side of Ag, you know, that truly is my Ag journey. I've never worked on a farm. All of my interactions with Ag have come from working with students my international experiences and my collaborations and partnerships.

So from the Ag business side, Ag education is where I was specialized in. And so because I'm also doing my doctorate and my research is actually going to be focused on you know, how can we support black students pursuing Ag at predominantly white institutions. And this scholarship actually was beneficial in helping to help support my travel to these institutions to conduct these interviews.

And it's allowed me to really help with my research as a whole as I prepare to defend my dissertation next year and begin and continue my research this scholarship was instrumental and really, really helping me to put the foot on the gas to collect that data. So that way I can develop effective strategic plans that support the advancement of minorities in agriculture.

Katie Ward:

Oh, that's good. I love hearing that. I'm glad that, you know, you were able to benefit from receiving it, and it's also going to contribute because we really look for students who are pursuing a career in ag, but we encourage them to think outside of the box, explain to us why this nonagricultural field that they're currently studying will then impact the ag industry once they graduate and get into the workforce, whether it be an education degree and just going and teaching ag or you know, like you said, fashion and using sustainable materials from farms to make really niche clothing. So it's really cool to see the videos come in from students and hear their perspectives of what the other side of Ag means to them.

So kind of a question tying into that is if you have any advice for these students who like you and I did not grow up having agriculture experience and exposure to the industry, but they may be interested in career opportunities in the field. Do you have any advice for them of how to sort of get their foot in the door?

Stephon Fitzpatrick:

I love this question. So if there's anyone out there that's listening to this, that's interested in agriculture. My number one recommendation would be to get involved, find out what local organizations have Ag initiatives in your, and your respective areas. And then ask for a tour. You know, my students have been fortunate because we're on the Eastern shore. They've gotten to tour the Merck animal health facility, Mount Hare, Purdue. We've took some students to an international food summit in Italy.

I have one student that was a marketing major that was interested in the hemp and cannabis research that we're doing on campus. And so I set up an interview, I set up a tour with the cannabis and geneticists here on campus at UMES. And that led to him securing a full-time internship for the summer and a full-time work contract as he finishes his senior year. And we took a marketing major, exposed him to Ag from the cannabis perspective. And now he has the resources and tools to travel. Once he graduates to apply for initiatives and opportunities in cannabis, and he didn't start off in agriculture. And so all it started with an interest.

And so I would implore you to look up how diverse the industry is and then identify what things are components of that industry you, you like, and then find the resources that are available to support you. And you can do that through FFA, through 4-H, through MANRRS. You can find information through all of our partners at MANRRS.org and that's www.MANRRS.org. And we have a whole section that talks about who our sponsors are. And every year at our conferences, they come in and a lot of them offer jobs on the spot. And a lot of those students, some are nontraditional Ag majority aren't, and we do have opportunities to support those students that do have a strong background in agriculture.

Katie Ward:

Yeah, those are all really great suggestions. And I completely agree with you wholeheartedly that it's all about making connections and just putting yourself out there to meet people in the industry, because what I've found through my time here in agriculture is that everyone's so willing to make connections for you and make those introductions because everyone seems to know everyone.

Stephon Fitzpatrick:

I agree.

Katie Ward:

Awesome. So it seems like you've traveled quite a bit across the whole world in your recent time with your internships and your leadership positions. I heard you mentioned Italy, Barcelona, where's your favorite place that you've gotten to travel?

Travel with UMES MANRRS

Stephon Fitzpatrick:

I think I would have to say Australia right before the pandemic started, I was able to spend three weeks in Australia and got to spend time on both coasts. As we were working on initiatives to set up a partnership with Sydney's vet school so really provide some additional opportunities for our vet students to expand that they wanted to get into international vet medicine. And so we spent some time out there. I spent some time out there and Australia is absolutely beautiful. The wildlife was amazing. The people were great, the food was amazing and it was its not many people can say, Hey, I've been to Australia. And so just to know that, you know, even on that continent, you know, there were people there that were willing to support our students here in the state made me appreciate the work that I do.

And then I would have to say a close second was the international food summit and Milan and Rome. And we got to, you know, these students who had never been out of the country got to see international how diverse agriculture is from an international standpoint from the technology and things of that nature. And I have to say these were rewarding experiences.

Katie Ward:

Wow. I bet they both sound like really great trips and I would love to make it to Australia at some point. So are there any other websites or social media, I know you mentioned the MANRRS website that you want to plug and we'll be sure to link everything to our website when this podcast comes out.

Stephon Fitzpatrick:

Yeah, definitely. So I know as far as for MANRRS like I said, it's www.manrrs.org on social media, on Instagram and Twitter their handles are national MANRRS. And again, that's M A N R R S. And then as far as, you know, Pennsylvania agriculture that's agriculturepa.gov and you can find information about the animal business and industry cause summer protection, food plant, land, and water, those initiatives that I'll be working with as well as information about the commission for ag education. And of course I can't forget the organization that really helped me get started. But you know, you can find all information about FFA at ffa.org.

Katie Ward:

Wonderful. Thank you. And you want to give a shout out to your local chapter?

Stephon Fitzpatrick:

Yeah. So definitely want to give a shout out to the UMES the University of Maryland Eastern Shore MANRRS chapter. This is my last month with them. And I have to say the three years that we've been together has been life-changing for me. And I've seen hundreds of students go on to do some amazing things, and I will forever appreciate and love this chapter. And definitely thank you to the national FFA, you know, FFA and national MANRRS organization for just supporting me these last 17 years, that I've really been instrumental in helping me get to these leadership positions that I hold today.

Katie Ward:

Great. Thank you so much. And we do have one last sign-off question for you that we like to ask all of our podcasts guests a lot is what do you advocate for in agriculture?

What Do You Advocate for in Agriculture?

Stephon Fitzpatrick:

What do I advocate for an agriculture? My biggest advocate for agriculture is the advancement of black and brown people in this industry. Despite the historical connotations of this agriculture has the, the, the support, the money and the opportunities available for these students to be successful in these industry. I tell them to not just don't look at, you know, what the demographics historically, I've been looking at, what you're interested in and look at the benefits of this industry.

This industry literally gave me a full ride to college. It gave me a federal job, and it's put me in positions to travel the world and it, and had I not been interested in seventh grade and went to my first FFA convention or my first MANNRS convention. I personally don't believe that I would be where I am today. And so I'm just blessed to be in positions now where they, these students that look like me, see me in these positions, not that now they can say, I want to be like Mr. Fitzpatrick wanted to one day, or I want to have a similar journey like Mr. Fitzpatrick and people like me can be successful in this industry.

And so, as long as I have breath, I will continue to be a champion for the advancement of minorities in agriculture.

Katie Ward:

That's awesome. Well, thank you so much. On behalf of the foundation for being such a role model and a leader for our youth and the future of the Ag industry, we truly appreciate everything that you're doing and wish you the best of luck in your new endeavors.

Stephon Fitzpatrick:

And thank you so much for this opportunity. I love talking about these initiatives and our students, and so however I can continue to support your organization. I am all for it. So thank you.

Katie Ward:

Yeah. I think everyone listening will be able to hear the passion in your voice, and hopefully now they'll have a new connection to reach out to whenever they need any connection or advice for Ag education. Definitely. Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Stephon, and I hope you have a great week.

Stephon Fitzpatrick:

Thank you. You do the same thing.

Thanks for tuning in to today's episode. If you haven't already make sure to rate, review and subscribe to our channel, you can even take a screenshot to share it with a friend. You can get the podcast notes from this episode and previous episodes over at mafc.com/podcast. If you have any suggestions for future topics or guests that you'd like to hear from shoot us an email at podcast@mafc.com. Thanks again for tuning in and until next time, keep on agvocating for what you believe in.