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Worrilow Award: youtube.com/watch?v=Q7nIbA2P5BU

Cultivating leadership and outstanding service

Photo and video by Michele Walfred

Lee Richardson earns College of Agriculture and Natural Resources’ highest alumni honor

When Lee Richardson learned he was named the 2020 Worrilow Award recipient, he was shocked. 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 (CANR). 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 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 in college. 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 Willards, Maryland, where his family grows soybean and corn and raises poultry. His agriculture vocation came from both sides of the family. 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.

Impressed with CANR’s overall reputation and with the laboratories of Worrilow Hall, Richardson crossed state lines and traveled 106 miles north to Newark as a member of the Class of 1992. Throughout his UD experience, Richardson and his classmates bonded by studying and living together. They were known collectively as “the farmhouse.” Richardson took extra classes during winter sessions to advance himself a semester ahead to the Class of 1991. While at UD, Richardson became an active member of the agriculture fraternity, Alpha Zeta. He was also a founding member of the Beta Upsilon Chapter of the national agriculture fraternity Alpha Gamma Rho.

University of Delaware Class of 1991 alumnus Lee Richardson received the 2020 George M. Worrilow Award for Outstanding Service to Agriculture.
University of Delaware Class of 1991 alumnus Lee Richardson received the 2020 George M. Worrilow Award for Outstanding Service to Agriculture.

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 both Wicomico County Soil Conservation Board. His involvement with the Wicomico County Young Farmers’ Association provided Richardson with full immersion in local politics.

Lee Richardson (left), seen here with his father, grew up on a farm, came to the University of Delaware to earn his degree and returned to his family farm.
Lee Richardson (left), seen here with his father, grew up on a farm, came to the University of Delaware to earn his degree and returned to his family farm.

His ties to UD remained a constant, both as a member and president of UD’s Ag Alumni Association, from which he received the Distinguished Service Award.

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. The mechanisms put in place to make an example out of the family were not easy to reverse. 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, CANR alumni 1966 and Worrilow Award honoree for 2000. “It was a time of unwarranted animosity, and Lee stepped in as an advocate for the family,” Klopp continued. 

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. He obtained a precedent-setting amendment from the Maryland legislature to authorize funding to assist the family with legal costs. Also, he secured the establishment of an appropriation to establish an Agriculture Law Clinic.

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 feels 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, UD alumnus and 1995 Worrilow Award honoree.

Richardson’s time at UD ran concurrently with significant scientific and technological innovations in agriculture. He believes social media has played a substantial role in fostering misconceptions. 

“There was simultaneous public fear about those changes,” explained Richardson. “I wish I could go back and promote agriculture on social media and explain better why it is done and how, even though we are bigger, we are still a family farm.” 

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, chair 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 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. 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.”

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