Growing appreciation for a legend in the field

  • UNH Extension specialist George Hamilton checks for potato leafhoppers in a field at Apple Hill Farm in Concord after a rainstorm on June 30. Hamilton was awarded the National Association of County Agricultural Agents Hall of Fame award in May. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • UNH Extension specialist George Hamilton checks for potato leafhoppers in a field at Apple Hill Farm in Concord after the rainstorm on Tuesday, June 30, 2020. Hamilton was awarded the National Association of County Agricultural Agents Hall of Fame award in May. The award recognizes up to four recipients each year for dedication and effective leadership as an outstanding educator, association involvement at both the state and national level, and outstanding humanitarian service GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • UNH Extension specialist George Hamilton stands in a field at Apple Hill Farm in Concord on June 30. Hamilton was awarded the National Association of County Agricultural Agents Hall of Fame award in May. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 7/5/2020 3:58:21 PM

George Hamilton is more used to dealing with outbreaks of insects and crop disease than with an outbreak of a pandemic.

Hamilton, a field specialist at the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, works to develop and share educational programming with the state’s farming community to help agriculture prosper in a sustainable way. He also conducts site visits to farms to diagnose problems and figure out solutions, as well as conduct research projects.

While COVID-19 has prevented Hamilton from being as hands-on as he would like in recent months, he continues to offer expert advice to growers across the state and region.

After almost 31 years in New Hampshire, Hamilton was awarded the National Association of County Agricultural Agents Hall of Fame award in May. The award recognizes up to four recipients each year for dedication and effective leadership as an outstanding educator, association involvement at both the state and national level, and outstanding humanitarian service.

Hamilton, who is the first award winner from New England, was nominated by extension colleagues who praised both his nationally recognized work and his relationships with growers and staff.

Olivia Saunders, a field production specialist in fruit and vegetable production at the extension, nominated Hamilton for the Hall of Fame award because she felt he would be a perfect candidate.

“I was looking at the requirements and I was like, ‘This is George’ – he’s given his whole life to this work, and very few people have accomplished what he has accomplished,” she said.

Raised on a vineyard in Pennsylvania near Lake Erie, Hamilton was involved in the Future Farmers of America while in high school and put himself through Penn State University using money from his tomato crops.

Hamilton’s own experiences with teachers and professors inspired him to pursue agricultural education, beginning in Biglerville, Pa., the center of the state’s apple industry.

After teaching “anything and everything” in high school and college programs in Pennsylvania and Washington state, Hamilton realized he enjoyed working with established farmers and applied for the UNH extension job in 1989.

Despite the wide range of projects Hamilton has worked on over the past three decades, he approaches them all with the same focus – putting the individual farmers and growers at the center, he said.

“I work with people who have problems. I don’t work with a problem,” Hamilton said. “The people part of it is important to me, because if I can help the person feel better about what they’re doing, they’re more apt to take the recommendations I have and implement them.”

Hamilton is nationally known for his work creating integrated pest management programs over the past 20 years, as well as in the field of sprayer calibration. Hamilton’s work with sprayer calibration stretches back to when he was in high school, when his father asked him to figure out how to fix a sprayer on their farm.

“The next day, I asked my teacher, and he came up and showed me, and it’s something that from when I was a sophomore in high school has stuck with me,” he said.

Those lessons became important in 2007 and 2008, when Hamilton visited several farmers struggling with disease outbreaks and insect problems.

After recalibrating one farmer’s sprayer, Hamilton identified it as the source of the problem. He began checking more and more sprayers to avoid problems and began to speak about his work.

“All of a sudden I had a couple grants for around $50,000 and some new equipment from Belgium that nobody in America was making, and all of a sudden, I’m known as the person to talk about sprayer calibration,” he said.

That’s just one of the fields he’s excelled in over the years.

“Many of us understand the biology or the technical aspects of our work, but to be able to translate that into language that people can use and put to work – it’s one of those skills that George has, but not everybody,” said Jeremy Delisle, a fruit and vegetable production specialist for the extension.

Hamilton helped Chuck and Diane Souther transition Apple Hill Farm in Concord from a single-crop system to a diversified one.

“On our farm, George has been one of the main reasons we have been successful, always there with advice in a way that teaches something each and every time he visits,” the couple wrote in a letter of support for Hamilton’s Hall of Fame application.

After decades in agriculture, there’s little Hamilton hasn’t encountered.

“I will often call him if I have a growing problem and I don’t know what the answer is,” said Saunders. “I will send him a photo or ask him what he thinks, and he’ll help me craft some guidance that I then give to my grower in my county – just because he’s seen it all and he already knows the answer.”

As climate change becomes more and more of a concern, the amount of longitudinal data Hamilton has collected over the course of his career allows both growers and extension scientists to study shifts in insect populations, disease outbreaks, and weather.

Hamilton views his mentorship of younger extension staff as equally important to his work with growers. When Saunders was first beginning her extension career, Hamilton would regularly check in with her not only about her work, but personally as well.

“He would just call to see how he could help,” Saunders said. “I think that not many people prioritize that and not many people want to be your friend and support you mentally or with whatever you have going on.”

As Saunders has developed her career, she models this approach with staff she manages. “He’s always done that for staff, which is something that I really respect, and because he’s modeled that since I’ve been here, that’s something that I try to do now, based on knowing that was really helpful to me,” she said.

Delisle said that Hamilton’s mentorship has played an influential role in his career development.

“He looks for opportunities to step back and let others step into the spotlight,” he said. “He could certainly do it himself, but he recognizes the fact that it’s important for the next round of extension specialists to be out there and be active in the grower community and give us an opportunity to show that we’re qualified.”

While COVID-19 has reduced Hamilton’s ability to travel across the state and across the country, his relationships with his colleagues and his client remain at the forefront of his work. His site visits are much less frequent these days, but over 400 farmers and growers call him regularly on his cell phone to check in, and Hamilton and his colleagues have continued to offer educational programming and meet with growers’ organizations remotely.

For Hamilton, the outbreak of the pandemic is yet another problem he will work with growers to address.

“He’s leaving quite a legacy as he moves through his career, and he’s an inspiration to a lot of us and a great example of how extension programming can make a positive difference in the lives of New Hampshire farmers,” Delisle said, “and that’s all any of us extension specialists can aspire to do. George has been a really great model for all of us.”

Saunders agreed.

“I truly think why George is so effective is because of his relationships,” she said. “The growers really know him and trust him. Certainly he’s an expert in so many things, since he’s been doing this for so long, but I think it’s those relationships that really make him an outstanding educator. That’s something that he deeply values, those personal relationships, and he’s certainly created those within the extension realm and the university, but also within the farmer community.”


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