Who says fertilizer and pesticide meetings have to be dull. You know, the ones where you get credit toward your pesticide licensing- the ones where speakers typically turn off the lights, show power points, and the audience is supposed to soak it up. Well, if that's your idea of a typical meeting, you haven't been to one of Fred Whitford's pesticide training meetings.
This breath of fresh air drifted into Indiana from Louisiana many years ago, where he claims he worked on the regulatory side of the ledger. Maybe that's why he knows all the ins and outs of the laws. At any rate, he's now head of Pesticide education programs at Purdue University.
When he showed up at Flanders A-maizing Acres farms near Noblesville last week, nearly 100 people, mostly farmers, were eating breakfast in Jim Flanders, Jr.,s new fertilizer containment facility. Flanders and his wife farm with his dad, Jim Flanders Sr., and mom. The meeting was sponsored by the Hamilton County Soil and Water Conservation District.
In walks Whitford with a baseball bat! That's right, an aluminum baseball bat, regulation size- not exactly standard regulation equipment for speakers at pesticide meetings.
No one sleeps when Fred talks. When he does meetings about what's legal to do with trucks on rural roadways, a retired state trooper often appears with him. But it doesn't take a trooper to make people pay attention. It really doesn't take a baseball bat. The trick is having the guts to call on someone and bug them until they answer a question, even if it's potentially embarrassing.
Several years ago, I was at a meeting where Whtiford convinced a guy in the crowd a TV crew in the back was filming the meeting for the local news, and they wanted his comments on pesticides and the environment. Of course they weren't, but the guy was certainly paying attention from then on. What makes it all work is down deep, Whitford cares about these guys, and is just out to help them learn. His methods just don't match those of a typical speaker.
So where does the baseball bat come in? That's when he talks about plastic fertilizer and liquid storage tanks, and whether they're still fit for service after a few years of use and abuse by ultra-violet rays from the sun. "If I take a baseball bat to it and it breaks, it wasn't fit for service," Whitford quips, eyeing Flanders tank on a semi bed that he uses in spraying season. Flanders was quick to stand between it and Whtiford!
He pulled out a ragged piece of plastic with jagged edges and a Magic Marker to further make his point. "I didn't hit this one," he says. "It broke on its own before I got there." With the marker, he draws lines on the tank, then wipes them off. Cracks are visible, meaning the tank would no longer be safe to use.
"This one was showing wear cracks so bad that you really didn't need the marker to see them," he says. "But using a marker helps you see potential trouble before it's too late, and you have a busted tank and a spill."
And the baseball bat? "Oh, I walked up to a second tank on the guy's farm where the first one busted on its own, and smacked it," he smiles. "It busted too. If he had filled it, that would have been another disaster.
"But he wouldn't let me take my bat to his third tank- two busted tanks are enough, he said. Actually, the third tank was newer, and was still serviceable anyway. He was just kidding about me not beating on it….I think!"
Pesticide safety is no laughing matter, but if it takes a few chuckles and dramatic moments to get the serious message across, Fred figures it's worth it. His methods seem to work.
So the next time a speaker walks into a meeting with a baseball bat, you might be best served by paying attention!