New Educators Fluent in Dairy Languages

12/1/2012 7:00 AM
By Chris Torres Staff Writer

PEACH BOTTOM, Pa. — It’s safe to say Ximena del Campo and Heather Weeks come from different worlds.

Del Campo is from Ecuador and emigrated to the U.S. about 10 years ago.

Meanwhile, Weeks grew up on a farm in Portsmouth, N.H., an idyllic town near the Atlantic coastline.

On the surface, it might be hard to find things in common between these two women. But talk to them for a few minutes and you’ll find they share some connections beyond being recently hired as two of Penn State’s newest dairy Extension educators.

The two have been on the job for about a month — del Campo based in Lancaster County, Weeks in Cumberland County.

For del Campo, 35, getting a job in Extension is like coming full circle. She grew up on a dairy farm in Ecuador but left the farm to pursue a career in journalism and later in dairy genetics.

“It’s good to be back. I feel good about being back in the industry,” she said.

Weeks, 26, returned to the U.S. this summer after spending several years, ironically, in del Campo’s native Ecuador, where she worked as a Peace Corps volunteer, educating people on sustain able agricultural practices.

“It’s really great to be part of the dairy industry back in the U.S. again,” she said.

Both say they bring a fresh perspective about not only dairy, but also agriculture in general, which they hope will help farmers become more successful.

Del Campo grew up on a 150-cow dairy farm in rural Ecuador. After emigrating to the U.S. 10 years ago, she attended Virginia Tech, where she received a bachelor’s degree in dairy science.

She then got a job as a sales manager for Genex Cooperative, selling new technologies like sexed semen in Latin American countries and the Far East.

Having met farmers and other ag professionals from around the world, she’s found that farmers in Australia and Colombia are not that much different from farmers in Lancaster County in terms of the struggles they go through and their thirst for knowledge about emerging technologies.

“Farmers are the same here and everywhere is what I’ve learned,” she said.

She left Genex after eight years and, after getting engaged, landed in Montana, where she pursued an MBA from the University of Montana and did farm consulting work on the side, including the training of Hispanic workers.

After a year in “big sky country,” her husband landed a job transfer to Lancaster County, where she followed suit.

One of the first places she visited in Lancaster was the Farm and Home Center, where she dropped off her resume in hopes of being able to transfer graduate credits to Penn State.

She then got a phone call offering her a job as a dairy Extension educator.

With her practical background in farming and knowledge of dairy science, she hopes she’ll be able to help farmers with new technologies like genomics.

“If I can help them apply these new emerging technologies in their farms, I would say my job was a success,” del Campo said.

Weeks’ father managed a university farm, her mom was a firefighter, and her aunt and uncle managed a dairy farm beside her house. She said even though her mom and dad had little time to farm, they still raised heifers that she showed through 4-H.

She also attended Virginia Tech, where she received a bachelor’s degree in dairy science and master’s in ag economics.

She then enrolled in the Peace Corps and went to Ecuador, where she worked with small farmers, helping them put in sustainable practices on farms.

Weeks said she thinks she brings a fresh perspective not only in how to manage a dairy, but also in how a dairy can impact the community as a whole.

“I think being able to look at the whole farm and not only how it impacts the farmer and the industry directly, but also looking at how it impacts the economy in the state of Pennsylvania, and being able to tie all of that in together and pulling that sustainable impact on the environment and being able to look at it in a more holistic perspective, is something that I think is really important,” she said. “It brings a fresh perspective to the dairy industry.”

Beyond their connections to farming and knowledge of the industry, both speak fluent Spanish, which no doubt is a skill they will be able to put to practical use right away as more and more Hispanics find employment on dairy farms.

Weeks said it took her a good year to learn Spanish and even longer to become comfortable speaking it. She admits she may have lost a word or two since returning home, but by having someone like del Campo around, she’s confident she’ll be able to brush up when she needs to.

“It’s really nice to have co-workers who speak Spanish. They help me remember it and maintain that skill,” she said. “You can still understand and communicate, and that’s the important thing. They (Hispanics) are there and they are a growing part of the Pennsylvania dairy industry as we move forward.”

Del Campo said she hopes her presence on dairy farms will enable her to make instant connections with Hispanics, not only on an educational level, but personal as well.

“They like talking with somebody they can relate to and speaks Spanish and culturally understands what they’re going through,” she said. “On the other side, I try to train the farmer in understanding how us Hispanics think because what they seem to think is abnormal or different is very normal for us.”

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