John Esslinger called his decision to retire “tough,” but said his 26-year career as a Penn State Extension educator was extremely fulfilling.
He attributed both feelings to the farmers he worked with across the state.
Esslinger, 61, retired on March 31, wrapping up a career in which he became a trusted source for fruit and vegetable growers.
After graduating from Penn State in 1982, he became a field representative with Furmano Foods and later a crop scout with the Columbia County Crop Improvement Association before settling in as an Extension educator.
Esslinger’s vocation was kindled as a teenager when he worked on vegetable farms in southern New Jersey. He said it will be strange to break from the routine of monitoring for insects in sweet corn this spring, and his weekly visits to produce auctions.
“I’ll miss those interactions with the farmers,” he said. “But I am thankful to work with so many good Pennsylvania farmers over the years. They are genuinely good people who I view as friends.”
While Esslinger was known for his expertise in the fruit and vegetable industries, he considered himself one part of the vast Extension network that helps many producers.
The Extension system is successful, Esslinger said, because it’s based on research that is shared by educators who engage farmers in what becomes a two-way street for learning.
“I’ve gained a lot of expertise in my career because you’re exposed to so much research and quality information,” he said. “Being engaged with farmers is how you continually learn and develop as an educator.”
A Career That Evolved With the Times
Still, the career is one of constant change.
During his early years with Penn State Extension, Esslinger said, technology was minimal. He didn’t have a computer, and cellphones were science fiction.
Back then, if an insect or disease issue surfaced with a particular crop, educators would write a news release, send it out, and it could take a week before the information reached farmers.
“Today, I can take a picture of a new invasive pest or disease, send it to our specialists and have the problem identified and diagnosed quickly,” Esslinger said. “I can turn around and text an alert to a group of farmers in the affected area and let them know right away. It’s a huge advantage.”
And producers appreciate the resource.
Len Burger III, a produce grower in Drums, Luzerne County, said Esslinger’s knowledge and accessibility were true assets to the commercial vegetable industry.
A recent example, he said, is Esslinger’s work to educate growers about the phytophthora blight with pumpkins.
“I don’t think we would be where we are without his assistance. If there was a disease in your area or you wanted to try something new, John knew about it,” Burger said. “John was a guy on the ground, and he really wanted to see agriculture thrive.”
Extension educators must never stop learning, Esslinger said, so that they can remain a trusted source as things change on the fruit and vegetable landscape.
“Pumpkins are now a bigger crop in the state, and hemp has become a very interesting area. These are things that are relatively new, and Extension has taken on that challenge as things change,” he said.
After March 31, the biggest change for Esslinger will be focusing on his own garden and orchard, with help from his two granddaughters.
He plans to make a “clean cut” from his Extension career, supporting his replacement but giving that person the opportunity to build their own rapport with farmers.
Several high-quality candidates have already applied for the job, Esslinger said, and he’s confident the farmers that he’s come to consider friends will be in good hands.
“I really want to see the next person be successful for the farmers’ sake,” he said. “I want to see them become someone the farmers can rely on and trust, and with the support of the Extension system, I’m sure that will happen.”