The first time I saw Fred Whitford address farmers was under a tent near a soybean field on a hot afternoon in Delaware County. His topic was handling chemicals safely. This will be a yawner, I thought. Maybe I should just go on home.
Wow, was I wrong! He was in farmer's faces, asking them personal questions about how they used herbicides, causing them to laugh so hard sometimes I thought they were going to fall off their chairs. When he finished, there wasn't a safety pamphlet left on the table.
Who was this guy? He was either a comedian, a clown or a lunatic escaped from a care facility.
Since then, Whitford has given 4,400 more programs and authored or co-authored 100 Extension publications.
Dave Petritz hired him in 1991 as coordinator of Purdue University Pesticide Programs. Petritz gave Whitford a mission: expand the program and take it to a new level, Whitford says.
"I believe in Extension and I love what I do," Whitford says. "I love working with farmers and others to solve problems. Many of our publications resulted from farmers asking questions."
Not everyone could take what could be the most boring position in Extension and become a requested, respected speaker. I remember another meeting where Fred's topic related to how to deal with your neighbors about pesticides.
As Fred spoke, what appeared to be a television cameraman showed up. Fred approached a farmer. The cameraman zoomed in.
"Ok, what are you going to tell the press about how you spray next to your urban neighbor's garden?" he asked.
The surprised farmer spit out an answer. Everyone sat up. Was this for real?
No, it wasn't – Whitford soon told the audience the guy wasn't a real cameraman. The audience laughed, mostly out of relief.
Was it effective? Well, that was more than 15 years ago, and I still remember the message.
In addition to all this, Whitford is also an accomplished author, writing about key people in the life of Purdue Extension. He is currently completing his third book, with a fourth book planned.