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Personnel Profiles

Ken Lewis

Following his intuition steered Ken Lewis into Extension

Ken Lewis' Extension career story isn't your typical one. He didn't grow up on a farm. He didn't bond with his 4-H agent and decide to follow in his footsteps. "Something" just told Ken that being a county agent would be an interesting job. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Ken, who will retire May 1 after 30 years with Extension, obviously listened to the small still voice.

Ken grew up in the small college town of Boiling Spring, North Carolina. He attended Gardner Webb College where his father taught Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and religion. There he earned a bachelor's degree in biology with a minor in chemistry.

"In the back of my mind, I kept thinking about being a county agent," he said. "I visited with the folks in North Carolina and they said if I wanted to work with farmers I needed to go back for my master's degree."

So Ken headed to Georgia and the University of Georgia where he enrolled in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences' master's program in Plant Protection and Pest Management. He also worked two summer internships.

"One was working with a private chemical company on a research farm, and that was where I absolutely fell in love with agriculture," he remembers. "The other was working in Dooly County with Chuck Ellis in their cotton scouting program. Then I KNEW I wanted to be a county agent."

Ken had intended to return home to North Carolina, but there weren't any openings and a job offer came in from UGA Extension in Seminole County. He started in May of 1982 with a split 4-H and ag appointment.

Three years later, Ken moved to Cordele and Crisp County to become one of two ag agents there. His primary focus was ag, but he also assisted with 4-H.

"I wanted to work with ag, but I still helped with DPA and hog shows and steer shows. You know, no matter your position, everybody does a little 4-H," he said.

Ken settled in and made a name for himself working with watermelons and watermelon farmers.

"I became the go-to person for watermelons. It's a good industry filled with good people," he said.

And he never got sick of watermelons, and still isn't. "I'd eat them everyday if I had access to them. In Crisp County, going through the fields I got to pick out the cull watermelons and sunburned ones. Those were county agent free pickings. We kept fresh cantaloupe and watermelon in the fridge in the office just using the culls."
Ken remembers working alongside Georgia growers when fruit blotch was first discovered. "It was very discouraging and it continues to be a big problem," he said.

The news media showed up to document the problem and Ken was interviewed. "News crews were looking for places to do a story on the 'exploding watermelons' so they came to Cordele. The funny thing is, a friend of mine who was doing an internship in France and saw me on CNN."

Looking back, Ken is proud to be a part of the team that established a small watermelon research facility in Cordele. "We were able to give back to the industry in that way by setting aside 3 to 5 acres dedicated to watermelon research," he said.

After 20 years in Cordele, Ken made a transition in 2005 and moved into the Ag and Natural Resources Program Development Coordinator (PDC) position in the Southwest District office in Tifton.

"The rubber meets the road in the counties, and I missed working with growers. That's the infantry and the trenches and where we make our impact, but I was proud and honored to take a different role training future agents. Is one any more important than the other? Absolutely, not. I missed working with (growers) but they are still my friends and neighbors."

In 2009 Tony Roberts retired as Southwest District Director and Ken was asked to assume that role in addition to maintaining his PDC responsibilities. "One of the most rewarding aspects of being a DED has been supporting 'my' agents in the promotion process and applying for awards. It feels good to be a part of helping someone move forward in their career or win a major award like the D.W. Brooks or Walter B. Hill," he said.

Ken will officially retire May 1, but will return to the office on June 1 as the acting ANR Program Development Coordinator.

He plans to use that month off to complete a long list of projects in and around the house, "piddle" in his garden and possibly play a little golf. "I play golf like the Padres. I play 6 or 8 times a year," he laughs. "I'd love to get the bike up to the mountains and carve some twisties for a few days as well."

Ken Lewis on motorcycleKen admits he doesn't have a lot of hobbies, but he does love motorcycles. "I've been a biker fan all my life. I've owned one since I was 16. Right now, I have a BMW R1200GS," he said.

When he truly retires, Ken hopes to take a cross-country trip to the Midwest "somewhere," but he'll have to do it solo. "I got my wife on the back of the bike once and that was all it took for her."

Like most people who truly love what they do, Ken has had second thoughts about retiring. "It's just something I need to do and it's time. I'm very appreciative that I can come back. I love Cooperative Extension and I want to stay involved and help out where I can."

And, he hasn't regretting his decision to become a county agent.

"I think the Lord has blessed me beyond measure. Going into Extension has been rewarding. I can look back and see that every step has been extremely rewarding. Working in Extension helped me grow as a person and I have been able to help people. I wouldn't take a million dollars for the experience."

(Written by Sharon Dowdy, a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

Released March 2012.

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