Riding off into the sunset
By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on May 3, 2011 1:46 PM
News-Argus/MICHAEL K. DAKOTA
Wayne County Cooperative Extension director Howard Scott will retire, and in his own words, return to the farm.
Howard Scott, retired director of Wayne County Cooperative Extension, accepts the Order of the Long Leaf Pine plaque from County Manager Lee Smith at a reception late last month.
Nearly 40 years ago, Howard Scott decided what he wanted to do with his life. Now, with his retirement scheduled for May 1, Wayne County's Cooperative Extension Service director will be leaving that chapter of his life and moving on to the next.
"I grew up in 4-H and I when I was in the 11th grade, I knew I wanted to be a 4-H agent," Scott said. "I was one of the lucky people. I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I had the opportunity to do it. It's hard to express how blessed I really feel I was able to do what I wanted to do. I just had to figure out how to get there."
Growing up on a 177-acre farm in the northeast corner of Wayne County near Lucama, Scott plans to return to those roots to help his cousins tend the farm -- and not take any sort of leadership role himself.
"They do it right," he said. "I can just go be a fetch-it boy. I can drive the tractor, drive the truck. Just as long as I'll be outside. The joke is that their job is to fix what Howard breaks."
After graduating from Lucama High School and N.C. State University, Scott's first job in Cooperative Extension was as the 4-H director in Davie County -- an experience he says he is forever grateful for.
"Growing up I didn't know much about western North Carolina," he said. "It was a great opportunity. I got my chance to go create something."
Then, after about a year and a half there, he came back east to take the 4-H director position in Lenoir County. There, he said, under the tutelage of Bill Lamm, who also served as director of the Wayne County Cooperative Extension for a number of years, was where he really learned how to do the job.
"Bill was very progressive. I learned a lot," Scott said. "I make the statement, "If you don't like me, it's Bill Lamm's fault. I saw how he was with people and listened with people."
Finally, in February 1986, he came to Wayne County, first as the 4-H director. Later, in 1996, he was named the county Cooperative Extension director, though up until three years ago he also maintained his 4-H duties. â€¢
"In 35 years, this organization has changed and farming has changed. 4-H has changed in the last 35 years. People have changed, and if you're not on the front side of that change, then you aren't doing your job," Scott said.
Fortunately, that's one thing that he has always prided himself, his department and Wayne County on -- being able, and more importantly, being willing, to change. And what's made that possible, he explained, is a progressive farming community and a diverse agriculture base.
"In Wayne County, what helps us is our diversity," he said. From poultry to livestock to row crops to commodity crops, "our diversity makes us very strong."
In fact, in 2009, Wayne County was the second largest county in the number of tobacco acres in the state, and fourth largest in 2010.
However, he said, because farming is such a costly endeavor today, farmers like his father or even many of those in the business 35 years ago would not be able to make a living on such little land.
"That farm sent four kids to college," Scott said. "But today it'd be too small to live on -- not without a lot of diversity. You can't live off of 50 acres of soybeans anymore. Per acre, you can't make as much money as we did because the input costs are so much higher than they were then."
And that's why the number of farms in the county have dropped, from 4,915 (290,000 acres) in 1950, a few years before Scott, 56, was born, to 732 (175,000 acres) in 2007 -- even as the amount of total receipts from agriculture and agribusiness total about $700 million, the most in the county with the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base coming in second at $520 million
"In 1950, we were an agricultural county. Now, we're a transitional county," he said.
And, he added, while that competition between farmland and development has and will likely continue to create challenges for the farming community, that's where a strong Cooperative Extension Service -- such as in Wayne County -- is important.
"These agents are really good, and so is the support staff," Scott said. "They understand what needs to happen. These agents have a vision. That's why it's a good time to leave. The staff are who really make it. My job is just to really help the staff be successful, and that's easy to do if you have good, quality people. I've probably learned more from them than they have from me."
The goal of Cooperative Extension, he explained, is to take the research, technologies and things being done by N.C. State, N.C. Central and at other colleges around the country and translate that data into useable information for farmers.
"In Wayne County it's easy, I think, because of the quality of our farmers here. Our farmers in Wayne County are progressive and are game to try things," he said.
In fact, he said, often the state will pilot programs or techniques here before trying them out in other areas of the state. And the same is true in the 4-H program, which has also changed in the last 35 years.
While the organization still has a focus on agriculture, it has also expanded into areas like science and technology.
"We still have an emphasis on education, community service and positive citizenship, but the methodology changes," Scott said. "The kids have changed. We've adapted."
Thirty-five years ago, he explained, almost everything was done outside the classroom. Today, among the changes he has helped oversee in Wayne County is a larger focus on taking 4-H to students by partnering with various classroom projects, especially in the county's science, technology, engineering and math schools, as well as with afterschool programs -- all of which allow them to serve about 5,000 students.
"We're actually reaching more kids," Scott said.
Now, though, Scott said, it's time to turn responsibility for those efforts over to somebody else.
"I'm getting tired," he said. "I'm don't have a whole lot of free nights because of all the meetings I go to. Now, do I have to go to all these meetings? No, but I feel like it's part of my job."
But last year, he said, he didn't have time to help his cousins out on the farm doing his "recreational bush-hogging." And that's something that he enjoys. He also said he has a 20-by-30 shop behind his house full of projects and other junk that he hasn't had time to get into in the last five years -- Project No. 2.
But the most important project, he said, is going to be helping his 92-year-old mother who lives across the street and still spends most of her days working in her yard.
And there definitely will not be time -- or opportunity -- to just sit around at home, doing nothing.
"There's a lot of things I've neglected that I need to get taken care of," he said.
That's one reason he waited until May to retire -- that and several projects he wanted to see through.
"I did not want to go in the wintertime. I'd rather be outdoors. I like being active and waking up in the daytime. I'm not a cold-weather fan. I think it makes the transition a little better for me," Scott said.
But that doesn't necessarily make it easier for those he is leaving behind.
"Where do you start?" county livestock agent Eileen Coite asked. "He's just a tremendous leader. He's done so much for all of us."
With 11 years in Wayne County, Ms. Coite pointed to several initiatives that Scott has largely been responsible for helping to implement, such as the voluntary agriculture districts, the farmland preservation program and most recently, the We Dig It agricultural promotion program, as well as new 4-H programs in several of the county's schools.
"He's really made those happen. Without his leadership, I don't know where we'd be," she said.
But, as 4-H program assistant Summer Young said, Scott's influence goes beyond simply implementing a couple of successful programs. Having grown up under his tutelage, first in 4-H herself and now as an employee for the last nine years, she said Scott hastouched a lot of lives in Wayne County.
"Everybody loves him," she said. "He taught us how to be responsible young people, and that's really something you carry through to your adult life. It's not just his staff. It's the whole community."
And not just Wayne County, county agriculture agent Kevin Johnson said, but really the whole state, which is why he is so deserving of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine he was presented with on Tuesday.
"He's touched so many lives through 4-H," Johnson said. "People he might have had as teenagers, now in the 30s, come up to him and its still, 'Mr. Howard.' He was there and helped them through a critical time in their lives. He's really made an impact not just in Wayne County, but across the state. He's very well known across the state."
But what makes him such a good leader and such a good advocate for Extension, 4-H and agriculture Johnson said, is his passion.
"He's a 4-H agent. That's what he is," Johnson said. "He's got energy galore. He running from the time he wakes up to the time he goes to bed. He's all about serving the people. That's the passion in his life. It's his family -- the people, the 4-Hers, his staff. That's his family and his passion. He just has a real energy and a passion for his job and our organization."
And Scott's passion for service is his most defining characteristic for Ms. Coite as well.
"He's probably the most passionate person I know about Extension, agriculture, 4-H, and everything we do at Cooperative Extension," she said. "He's so committed. Passion is the only world I can describe."
"When we have staff meetings, the last thing he says to us before they're over is 'Let's go conquer the world.'" And I really think he sets his sights high and his expectations high, and you can't help but be pulled along and be a hard worker.
"We have a good staff, but its because of his tremendous leadership that we've been able to do things we have.
Looking back over his years, Scott said he's pleased with the direction his career went -- that he got to do exactly what he wanted to do -- and he hopes he's leaving Wayne County in a good position to move forward.
"If you live east of 95, where else do you want to live but Wayne County," he said. "I've made a lot of mistakes. But the mistakes were not made intentionally. They were mistakes that were probably made because we pushed. We were trying push to make things bigger and better.
"I've slowed down a little bit. I believe in being a doer, but sometimes you get in trouble when you don't slow down to see the potholes."
And when he wakes up on May 2 and realizes he doesn't have to be at the office, he hopes his legacy will be a good one -- one that would make his father proud.
He said he remembers growing up and people coming to see his father for advice, whether about farming or just about anything else. He said he remembers his father for being a quiet leader and for his work ethic, and that he hopes he's remembered similarly.
"You don't just talk about things. You do them. You contribute," he said. "But it's not about Howard anymore. I think 35 years is enough."
And on Friday, April 29, his friends, colleagues and mentees said goodbye to a role model and a leader, with a special retirement party.
The Extension office isn't expected to miss a beat, though. With four candidates, both from inside and outside Wayne County, scheduled to interview this week, the goal, County Manager Lee Smith said, is to have somebody hired by May 2.
But even if that timeline were to be pushed back, Ms. Coite said, Scott has always pushed them to be involved in leadership positions and other aspects of the community, preparing them to be able to stand alone.
"Because of that we're prepared to be independent and continue on," she said.
"So he's convinced we're going to be just fine. We don't think we will, but we will be."