County extension educator receives national Distinguished Service Award

How do I get a raccoon out of my house?

What’s this strange plant growing outside my house? Is it harmful? Will it give me an allergic reaction?

What caused my tree to die?

Then there’s the ever-popular “What’s this bug?”

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So how does Richard Beckort know these answers?

“Sitting here for 30-plus years and answering the same questions,” he said while sitting at his desk in the Purdue Extension Jackson County office in the basement of the Jackson County Courthouse in Brownstown.

Throughout his 33 years as an agent or educator for Purdue Extension Cooperative Service, Beckort, 57, has been there for people any time they have a question related to agriculture or natural resources.

If he doesn’t know the answer, he will do whatever it takes to get it.

“Over the 30-plus years, that’s what I like about the job. It’s never the same,” he said, smiling. “When that phone rings or that email comes in, you never know what (the question) is going to be. We want to do what we can to help them.”

Sometimes, he doesn’t know the answer, so he either searches for it online, pulls out a reference book or calls a fellow extension educator.

“Just getting that education to people, that’s what I like,” Beckort said. “Whether it’s doing a program or individual one-on-one, just seeing that light bulb come on ‘Hey, OK, I can take care of this,’ we deal with everybody. Whatever their question is, we try to get them the information, try to get the answer they need.”

Beckort’s do-whatever-it-takes attitude is a big reason he recently was presented a 2020 Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of County Agricultural Agents. He was among 62 recipients nationwide, including one of two in Indiana.

He was supposed to receive the award during a banquet at the annual meeting in Virginia Beach, Virginia, but it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so winners were recognized via a virtual presentation. Beckort recently received a plaque in the mail and hung it on a wall in his office.

“It just means a lot when you’re nominated by your peers and selected by your peers,” Beckort said. “It just makes you feel good that over the years, you’ve done a good job. I’ve always thought I did, but that just kind of reaffirms it that I’ve hopefully done something for the people of Jackson County over the years.”

Beckort grew up on a small family farm in the Spencer County city of Rockport. They had cow/calf and farrow-to-finish pig operations and grew corn and soybeans.

“It was just at that time your general small family farm,” he said. “It was my parents and two sisters, and we were on a tractor all summer long.”

Growing up in that environment, Beckort said he knew he wanted to revolve his career around agriculture, particularly one of his loves: Horticulture.

“We just always had a big garden, always doing something, growing something,” he said. “It could be house plants. It could be whatever. We just always grew something.”

He also was a 10-year 4-H member, showing beef steers and completing wildlife, soil and water and other projects.

After graduating from South Spencer High School in 1981, he went to Western Kentucky University and earned a bachelor’s degree in agronomy/horticulture in 1985 and a master’s degree in commercial horticulture in 1987.

His first two years working for Purdue Extension was in Jennings County as a youth agent.

In 1989, he joined the Jackson County staff as an ag agent.

He followed in the footsteps of his mother, who had served as a home economics agent in Perry County.

“Our mission with extension is to bring research information from the university (Purdue) out to the people,” Beckort said. “It’s what we’ve been doing for 100-plus years. Extension started with the 4-H program. Teach the kids, the kids go home and teach the parents. That’s how extension started.”

At one point, the agents’ titles changed to educators, which Beckort said is more in line of what they do.

As an agriculture and natural resources educator, Beckort said one of his roles is to work with farmers on crop production, livestock production and more.

“They are a great group,” he said. “The farming population is one that they want information. They want to make sure they are doing their best because profit margins in ag are very slim.”

A lot of his job with farmers consists of helping them earn credits for the Pesticide Applicator Recertification Program. Purdue Exension offers trainings throughout the year so farmers can get credits to maintain their state license.

“A lot of the farmers this day and age have their own agronomist through their seed dealer or their chemical supplier, so sometimes, we’re the second line there saying, ‘This is what I’m being told. Is it correct? What’s your opinion of that?'” Beckort said. “I’m kind of a generalist. I’m not a trained agronomist that stays up to date on a lot of that, but it’s a lot of those general things.”

Jackson County also has a large specialty crop production, including watermelons and tomatoes.

“That’s kind of where I’ve found my niche of being a specialist,” Beckort said. “I’m kind of the vegetable person in our area and our district.”

Another role is assisting homeowners with their gardening, landscaping and lawn care questions. During his career, he has often made presentations on those topics for the public and local garden clubs.

He also educates youth through the Jackson County 4-H program and the annual Environmental Field Day at Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge in Seymour.

Beckort said he helps the fair board in a variety of areas when it comes to the county fair, which heavily revolves around 4-H, and he also has spearheaded the 4-H livestock auction in recent years.

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in this year’s fair and Environmental Field Day going virtual. All of the 4-H projects were judged via online methods, and Beckort recorded a talk about wetlands at the refuge to share with local third grade teachers.

“We morphed that from in person to here’s a virtual video. Not the greatest, but it’s what we have,” he said. “We’re missing that human interaction.”

Beckort also likes educating and working with other educators in the area and state. Jackson County is among nine counties in its area and 18 in the district.

“Technology has changed a lot over the years. They send me a text with a picture, ‘What’s this plant?’ and I look at it and tell them what it is,” he said.

“It’s also helping out those newer educators because there are people that came before me that did the same thing for me,” he said.

Purdue Extension has agriculture and natural resources, 4-H youth development, health and human sciences and community development educators.

So what makes a good educator?

“You just have to have a heart to help, I think, because that’s what you do. Yes, we’re here to educate, we’re here to pass knowledge on, but you have to do it with a passion and a heart of helping that person improve their life,” Beckort said. “The other thing is to be trustworthy and be reliable — do what you say you’re going to do.”

Beckort said it’s also important for educators to keep learning.

“I’ve gained a lot of knowledge because when I started back as a kid out of college, I didn’t have this knowledge,” he said. “I’ve learned from the people of Jackson County and the people of the state of Indiana as much as I think I’ve trained them.”

He has been given opportunities to learn by attending conferences around the state and traveling to Colombia, South America, to teach vegetable production to farmers.

“I had no idea that would ever come about, and it was just a fantastic opportunity,” he said of the international trip. “I would go back in a heartbeat.”

He was supposed to go to Trinidad this year to work with a Purdue Extension group, but the pandemic put a halt to that.

“Maybe next year,” he said.

In terms of how much longer he wants to be an educator, Beckort isn’t sure.

“I’ll be around a few more years,” he said, smiling. “There’s no magical number out there. I still thoroughly enjoy what I do. The people of Jackson County have been wonderful to work with. I have been blessed to be here in this location.”

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Name: Richard Beckort

Age: 57

Hometown: Rockport

Residence: Seymour

Education: South Spencer High School (1981); Western Kentucky University (bachelor’s degree in agronomy/horticulture, 1985; master’s degree in commercial horticulture, 1987)

Occupation: Served as an agent or educator for Purdue Cooperative Extension Service for 33 years (two years in Jennings County and 31 years in Jackson County)

Family: Wife, Ellen Beckort; sons, Andy Beckort, 30, and Aaron Beckort, 28