Apr 17, 2014
North Carolina berry industry loses key personnel

There’s been a bit of a shakeup for the North Carolina strawberry industry in the last few months.

For one thing, Debby Wechsler is no longer executive secretary of the North Carolina Strawberry Association (NCSA). She stepped down in February, after 17 years on the job. Wechsler also is executive secretary of the North American Raspberry & Blackberry Association (NARBA), and found it difficult to keep managing both organizations. She decided she had to focus on one, so she picked NARBA.

“It was hard to manage both and have a sane life,” she said.

Leaving NCSA was a hard decision to make, but the organization needs some new ideas and new energy, she said. Wechsler will continue to work for NARBA from her home in Pittsboro, N.C. She has managed other ag organizations in the past, including the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association and the North Carolina Herb Association.

About the same time Wechsler left NCSA, Jeremy Pattison – strawberry breeder and Extension specialist with North Carolina State University (NCSU) – left the university for a job with Driscoll’s, the big berry company based in California. Other university personnel will handle Pattison’s strawberry projects for the rest of the growing season. NCSU will have to figure out how to fill the void in the long term, according to John Dole, head of the university’s horticulture department.

Wechsler admitted she and Pattison leaving their positions at the same time was a “double whammy” for the state’s strawberry industry, but it wasn’t planned.

“Neither of us knew what was happening with the other person,” she said. “We both feel terrible about that.”

NCSA will have to work closely with the university if it wants to make sure the strawberry breeding program continues, she said.

To replace Wechsler, NCSA recently hired Lisa Vines – a public affairs specialist with the North Carolina National Guard – as executive secretary. NCSA’s board of directors, made up of nine growers, has made some other changes as well. It recently elected James Kenan as treasurer. It also created a new position, executive director, and tapped Barclay Poling to fill it. Poling, who retired from NCSU Extension in December 2010 but still performs some of his old Extension duties, is now the strawberry association’s interim executive director. Associations with executive directors seem to do well, and the board decided to give it a shot, he said.

“This is the first time we’ve ever done this, but there are good examples of organizations who have benefited from having a person in this role,” Poling said.

It is too early to tell whether the position of executive director for NCSA will become permanent, Poling said.

On top of being NCSU’s strawberry breeder, Jeremy Pattison had filled Poling’s old job as Extension specialist. Due to university funding shortages and a lack of qualified applicants, filling both of Pattison’s positions is going to be difficult. A strawberry breeding and genetics program costs about $200,000 a year to maintain, Poling said.

In the midst of all these changes, however, NCSA is stepping up its activities. The board of directors has “never been more engaged” in planning the Southeast Strawberry Expo, scheduled for Nov. 17-19 in Pinehurst, N.C., Poling said.

Matt Milkovich


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