Developing the Future of Agriculture

Last Updated 3/7/2024In On The Farm

Photo by Isaac Mason

By Alexis Mason

For many, finding your passion can be a difficult task. The search to find the one thing that sets your heart on fire, the thing that you wake up everyday excited about, the thing you’re so passionate about that you can’t wait to share it with others, doesn’t always reveal itself to us early on in our life. However, for Nancy Keith, the Iredell County Agriculture Extension Director, her passion presented itself from the very beginning.

“I was born and raised on a dairy farm in North Iredell. I began going to the barn with my dad when I was old enough to walk. Growing up in agriculture and on the farm sparked my passion and love for the industry," Keith said.

Keith is a graduate of North Iredell High School - Olin, NC and Mitchell Community College - Statesville, NC. She went on to receive her Bachelors and Masters degree from N.C. State University. From there an opportunity presented itself to work at the Swine Research Unit while conducting a company research trial at the dairy unit. One day, a professor approached Keith and asked her if she would be interested in a diary position at the Davie and Yadkin County extension.

Cultivating a Future in Agriculture

After reflecting on her journey, Keith stated, “I started with what was, at the time, NC Agricultural Extension Service in April, 1989, as a two county Dairy Agent. That quickly turned into a 10 county Area Specialized Dairy Agent, working primarily with dairy farmers. In 1991, the North Carolina Agricultural Extension Service became the NC Cooperative Extension Service. I continued working as an Area Agent until October, 2007, when I became County Extension Director in Yadkin County and interim County Extension Director in Alleghany County in 2010, along with Yadkin.”

The goal had always been to make it back home to Iredell County in some capacity according to Keith. In 2012, Keith was named County Extension Director in Iredell County. She secured the position after the passing of Kenneth Vaugh whom Keith worked with for many years through dairy producers and dairy youth programming. “It took me 23 years to get back home, but I made it," Keith added.

One of the things that Keith mentioned that she loves most about her job is all of the opportunities to work with people every day. Keith’s position at the agricultural extension allows her to work with dairy producers, pesticide applicators, animal waste operators, dairy youth, county partners, beekeepers, Master Gardeners, Shooting Sports Club, Extension Homemakers, Iredell County fair, and county citizens in general. Although passionate about all aspects of her job, Keith’s primary agricultural interest is dairy farming.

“Helping to make a difference in someone’s life is what it’s all about," explained Keith. “I love the people of Iredell County and the diversity it has to offer.”

Nearly one million women in the United States work in agriculture, and they make up one third of the farmers in our country. In the state of North Carolina, specifically, in the areas of livestock, field crops, and horticulture, female agents run the show. However, when Keith began her career in the agricultural industry, those statistics were quite different.

“When I was hired in 1989, there were very few female agriculture agents. I was in the position where I was going to have to make my way into a man’s world quickly," Keith added, which is exactly what she did.

Iredell County Agriculture Extension Provides Support

During a normal year, the cooperative extension offers workshops and conferences that relate to production practices, small farmer resources, beginning and intermediate schools for beekeepers, youth programming, health and wellness, food safety, and individual consultation with people who may be thinking about getting into agriculture. Also, the extension houses agents who specialize in field crops, livestock, horticulture, 4-H and youth development, and Family and Consumer Sciences. Needless to say the classes that are offered are taught by experts in their fields.

Being that agriculture is Iredell County’s largest industry, Mrs. Keith has some advice to offer to young people who are thinking about going into farming. “I would suggest finding a mentor to work alongside," Keith explains. “For high school students that are interested in the agriculture field, there are numerous opportunities, that include: Cooperative Extension, agriculture communications, animal health, animal nutrition, genetics, processing, economics, agriculture finance, environmental science, food science, food safety, herd management, crop science, soil science, veterinary science, and numerous more. I’d encourage them to try it out, to not ever think that they can’t, because can’t never could.”

Having met with Nancy Keith a couple of times, it is very easy to see that she has a passion for helping others. She has a kindness and warmth to her that is unparalleled. Anytime someone needs help she is always there to offer them resources and guidance. Although it is her job to do so, when she says she cares, it is truly a genuine statement. The Iredell County Extension is also a very welcoming place with large conference rooms and auditoriums that allows the agents to host large classes comfortably. I would highly suggest you stop by or sign up for a class, given the opportunity.

Lastly, Keith shared who her role models have been throughout her life, and throughout her career in agriculture sharing, “My role models are my dad, Kay Yow, and Jim Valvano. Dad taught me the meaning of hard work and working beside him helped me learn many life skills that you can’t learn from a book. Kay Yow teaches persistence, and as she said, ‘when life kicks you, let it kick you forward.' Jimmy V instilled, ‘never give up, don’t ever give up’.”

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