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Extension educator prepares for retirement after 30 years

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The promise of a free chicken dinner led Mike Ferree to his 30-year career as a Purdue Extension educator.

After serving in St. Joseph and Henry counties, Ferree was chosen in July 2000 to succeed Bartholomew County extension educator Jon Cain.

After a dozen years on the job here, Ferree, 55, will formally retire Dec 28.

Ferree was working on his master’s degree at Purdue when a friend and fellow graduate student recruited him for an on-campus career exploration activity.

“He asked me if I wanted to go and serve chicken at the 4-H Round-up,” recalled Ferree. “I said ‘sure,’ because it was a free meal.”

While at the event, Ferree was approached by a Purdue personnel director who inquired about his career plans.

“I told him I wanted to teach high school agriculture,” Ferree remembered. “He said ‘Nah, I’ve done that. I have a better option for you.’ Then he talked me into considering Extension.”

After finishing his master’s degree in 1982, Ferree spent the next seven years as a young Extension educator in South Bend, followed by 10 years in New Castle.

“We’ve all told him he can’t leave,” said Brenda Ann Shireman, manager of the local Purdue extension office. “He’s able to keep things at an even keel here.”

“I’m just gonna miss him, period,” said secretary Jolinda Smiar, who has worked for Ferree for more than nine years. “He’s just been a really great boss and educator. I mean, he’s the boss and I can go to him for direction. But he’s more of a friend than anything.”

Purdue officials already have begun a search to find a successor. While interviews are expected to begin in February, Ferree said the position probably won’t be filled until late April, at the earliest.

Ferree said the Purdue Extension educator largely assists farmers and gardeners.

“We put so much emphasis on agriculture because while there’s huge risk and much out of their control, farmers produce the most important commodity,” Ferree said. “I mean, it’s not like growers can say we’ve had a bad season, so nobody can eat next year.”

After decades of decline, census figures show the number of family farms actually grew by about 4 percent over the past decade. Ferree said that in Bartholomew County, there has been an increase of both tenant and part-time growers.

Today, the most often-asked inquires Ferree handles deal with either land rental prices or ways to assist novices in starting a part-time agricultural investment.

When asked about the strangest questions he’s received, Ferree said there have been plenty of those.

“For example, I had an email last summer from someone who asked: ‘Why is the corn so short? Is it because of the genetic modifications?’ I said, ‘Well, no. Actually, it’s because of the drought.’”

Ferree found his biggest audience was Bartholomew County residents involved in home horticulture. He said while many might like to make a little profit, they grow fruits and vegetables for the sheer enjoyment of raising their own food.

“The Master Gardeners has been a really well-received program,” Ferree said. “They’ve gone through an intensive gardening series, and one of the great things is to have them return volunteer hours to help out in a variety of community efforts.”

The retiring extension educator also seems especially proud of the Extension Homemakers clubs.

“They are one of the tops in the state, in terms of membership,” Ferree said. “They do a lot of valuable education programs while remaining very active in the community.”

But when the subject of 4-H was brought up, Ferree regretfully admitted he never joined the youth organization as a child. The 30-year extension educator nodded as he pointed out he is still learning new things through 4-H all the time.

“To me, that’s such a great organization,” Ferree said. “Watching young people in 4-H grow to be contributing adults in our community is just a wonderful thing to see.”

Ferree plans to stay in the Columbus area and to remain active in a voluntary role with several organizations. But he does have one post-retirement ambition he plans to pursue.

“The goal on my bucket list is running the Boston Marathon,” Ferree said. “I qualified one year, but I didn’t get to run because they only took the fastest of the qualifiers. But I’m still planning to devote some time to pursue that.”

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