Olivia Saunders, fruit and vegetable field specialist based in Carroll County, is the recipient of UNH Extension’s 2020 Maynard and Audrey Heckel Extension Educator Fellowship.
The Heckel fellowship is given to Extension educators for exemplary program accomplishments achieved through innovative and creative approaches in at least one of three areas: involving university faculty beyond traditional disciplines in meeting educational needs of New Hampshire citizens, developing and involving strong local leadership in support of Extension programs or assisting and supporting low-income families.
Saunders was specifically recognized for her work within the agricultural community throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Seth Wilner, agricultural business management field specialist for UNH Extension, described the beginning of the pandemic as confusing and stressful for the agricultural community. “When Covid-19 began, and throughout the early stages of the state shutdown, members of the agricultural community, like so many others, were worried, confused and seeking information and knowledge. Information was coming fast and furious yet was not organized and often was not digestible nor actionable.”
To address these concerns and needs, Saunders conceived and then implemented a program to connect agricultural professionals and organizations with each other and with their clients — farmers and food processors. From March through May she facilitated hour-long, twice weekly sessions called Farmers’ Forums (which have since continued monthly). She also worked with a colleague to create weekly, then bi-weekly electronic newsletters with information to help people manage their operations during the pandemic.
Wilner explained, “Olivia is an amazing educator, colleague and leader. Her work is professional, impactful and complex. One of the impressive attributes of Olivia’s work is a value of developing leadership skills through grassroots decision making and involvement.”
Saunders works directly with vegetable, tree fruit and small fruit farmers in New Hampshire on issues such as soil fertility management, pest identification, cover cropping, organic production and challenges associated with new and beginning farming. She has continued solo site visits to farms, has served as an excellent spokeswoman for several articles in local media and helped spearhead the New Hampshire Farm Products Map to help connect residents directly with farms and allow for easy filtering of farms based on desired products, purchasing options and geographical location.
She also recognized the importance of mental health education during these challenging times and teamed up with the New Hampshire Farm Bureau to launch an outreach campaign about mental health awareness while supplying resources to farmers.
“The impact of Olivia’s work is, without question, long lasting and hugely beneficial. It has shaped our future programming as an organization, and it has brought together many disparate agricultural agencies, organizations and private vendors,” said Wilner.
The Maynard and Audrey Heckel Extension Educator Fellowship is established at the University of New Hampshire Foundation, Inc. through the generosity of Maynard C. Heckel, director emeritus of UNH Cooperative Extension and professor emeritus of adult education, and his wife Audrey E. Heckel. Maynard Heckel spent his professional career associated with Cooperative Extension, starting as a county extension agent in northeastern Connecticut. He later served as a training leader and then as associate dean of the Extension Division at Virginia Tech, before moving to New Hampshire and assuming the position of director of Cooperative Extension and professor of adult education at the University of New Hampshire. During his tenure (1971-1983) as director of Cooperative Extension, he led the design and establishment of the extension educator ranking system. Still used today, this system clearly recognizes the educational role of professional cooperative extension agents and specialists in carrying out the outreach function so important to the mission of a land grant university. Seeing extension educators involved with a broader range of University resources in meeting the needs of New Hampshire citizens is the primary reason for establishing the Maynard and Audrey Heckel Extension Educator Fellowship.