Richardson earns highest alumni honor from Delaware’s CANR
WILLARDS, Md. — When Lee Richardson learned he was named the 2020 Worrilow Award recipient, he said he was shocked.
He said he knew the prestige that accompanied the award, named in honor of George M. Worrilow, former dean of the University of Delaware College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
The award’s past 50 recipients boasted esteemed careers in academia, public service and government.
Richardson pondered why he was selected: After all, he was “just a farmer.”
But not just any farmer. Richardson has approached agriculture with a voice imbued with passion and purpose, nurtured through five generations of family tradition.
A voice empowered through formal training and valued experiences. A voice tuned in to the power of understanding other opinions — a voice called upon at a critical time to defend a local farm family against a lawsuit filed by the Waterkeeper Alliance, an influential environmental group.
Richardson knew that the lawsuit’s success would set a precedent capable of destroying the livelihood of most Delmarva farm families, including his own.
Richardson’s journey toward that advocacy started on 2,000 acres in Wicomico County, where his family grows soybeans and corn and raises poultry.
His agriculture vocation came from both sides of the family.
He said his earliest memories are atop a tractor, taking it all in by his father Syd’s side. Richardson’s mother Kay was the first female president of the Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc.
While formal education is not a requirement to be a successful farmer, Richardson wanted to know the scientific “why” behind his experiential “know-how.” He began looking at college campuses.
Starting in the agronomy program, Richardson eventually shifted to the broader, general agriculture major, which provided him with a solid foundation across all agriculture disciplines.
He holds fond memories of academic guidance received from his adviser Tom Simms and the agriculture economics lectures of Carl Toensmeyer.
“During one class, Dr. Toensmeyer took us up to Wilmington to a business meeting, asking us to mingle and introduce ourselves and talk to people we did not know,” recalled Richardson. “That was hard for me to do, but it taught me a lot. It was a big help to me later.”
He also pushed himself out of his comfort zone in a UD public speaking course, which later paid dividends in Maryland’s state capital.
“That skill sure came in handy for all the time I spent in Annapolis and with the media,” Richardson said.
Returning to the farm after graduation, Richardson gravitated to leadership roles.
He served as president of the Wicomico County Farm Bureau and a member of Wicomico County Soil Conservation District board.
He added his involvement with the Wicomico County Young Farmers’ Committee provided Richardson with full immersion in local politics.
The Waterkeepers Alliance challenge would draw from every resource and contact Richardson knew or developed.
He learned that from aerial surveillance of a local poultry farm, the environmental group had misidentified a legal pile of bio-solids as an illegal deposit of poultry manure.
Blindsided by the lawsuit, the family reached out to its larger community to respond to a suit placed in motion.
Richardson answered the call.
“It was an unfortunate clash of environmental activism and a family farm. Three years of legal wrangling, expenses and tremendous stress for the family in question,” said Spangler “Buzz” Klopp, retired poultry veterinarian and Worrilow Award honoree for 2000. “It was a time of unwarranted animosity, and Lee stepped in as an advocate for the family.”
Richardson drew upon all that he had learned, including a network of peers, professors, and agriculture experts. He clarified facts, organized resources, and fundraised to offset the family’s legal expenses.
He met with members of the media, developed the website “Save Farm Families” and coordinated an effective communications plan that advocated on behalf of farm families.
His efforts exonerated the family and led the Maryland legislature to authorize funding to assist farm families with legal issues through what became the Agriculture Law Education Initiative.
In 2013, Richardson earned recognition as Perdue’s Outstanding Poultry Producer from Perdue Farms.
The following year, he was named the recipient of the coveted Service to Agriculture Award from the Maryland Association of County Agricultural Agents.
Richardson said authentic storytelling and communications are crucial to engaging with the public.
“You need to understand where people are coming from to explain your position,” Richardson said. “If you know how they are thinking, you know better how to approach and affect change.”
“He was able to get the message across to non-farm people, to policymakers, in Maryland’s legislature, at the county level, and at the Maryland Farm Bureau, that agriculture is important in so many ways,” said Ed Kee, former Delaware Secretary of Agriculture and 1995 Worrilow Award honoree.
Richardson recognizes the value of public outreach, whether it’s hosting inner-city students at his farm or talking to the community at his produce stand.
“We are so very honored to have Lee as our 51st Worrilow Award member, said Ted Haas, chairperson of the Worrilow Award selection committee, 2001 Worrilow Award recipient and a 1977 UD alumnus. “Lee has provided strong leadership and 30-plus years of service to agriculture out in the field and the Wicomico community. He is an outstanding young man who has accomplished a lot for the community and agriculture in general.”
Looking ahead to the next generation of farmers, Richardson said he advocates the value of building relationships.
“The connections you make are important. Value and keep in touch with them,” he said. “The people I met at UD have become engineers, agriculture economists, politicians, professors and Extension agents. I formed those bonds and they helped me along the way. They still do.”
From his parents’ porch, Richardson can see his own home across a field of swaying soybeans during growing season. The family farm has now reached its sixth generation, which will have its own rewards and challenges to meet. Richardson said his family attitude is passionately apparent as they begin each day.
“We don’t get up in the morning to go to work; it is never work,” he said. “We get up to go to the farm.”