A good side of the Coronavirus Pandemic, people want to eat and live locally. As we are becoming more and more aware of our neighboring farms, farmers, and small businesses a push to be local seems to have swept the nation. That is no different in Connecticut where Litchfield County UConn 4-H Extension Educator Bill Davenport is bringing that food and individual connection to the classroom.
At Mitchell Elementary School in Woodbury, Davenport helped bring UConn 4-H’s first ever tower garden to students to teach them the importance of agriculture and sustainably grown food. Alongside Tyler Cremeans (Aquaponics and Farm to Table teacher at Nonnewaug High School’s Agriscience Program), John Dominello (Culinary and Farm to Table Teacher at Nonnewaug High School), and Shelby Hale (Science Instructional Coach at Mitchell Elementary School) they plan to provide the students not only with the tower garden but also have high school students and 4-H club officers from the agriscience program mentor the younger learners.
To Davenport this is simply the very beginning of what can become a collaborative effort between 4-H clubs and members across the state and the elementary schools in their communities. With the goal to have two of these tower gardens up and growing within the coming weeks at Mitchell Elementary School and Bethlehem Elementary school this is the start of a much larger project to help UConn 4-H members collaborate with younger community members. Not only will there be collaboration amongst 4-H, but Davenport hopes to bring in individuals from the Northwest Conservation District and the Bethlehem Conservation
Commission turning this into a community based effort. The project has the potential to gain traction and result in tower gardens being provided to schools and students across Connecticut. Teaching elementary students about the environment, agriculture, and sustainability through a hands-on-learning approach helps foster a population that understands where their food comes
from, how it is grown, and how to do so sustainably.
After thirty-three years as an agriscience teacher at Nonnewaug High School in Woodbury, William Davenport has found his way back to his early grounding in 4-H. He began work as assistant extension educator in charge of 4-H programming in Litchfield County in July 2019. Davenport is a graduate of the college, having earned bachelor of science and master of science degrees in animal science, then sixth year in administration and supervision at Southern ConnecticutState University.
“We are pleased to have Bill join the Extension team as an accomplished agriscience educator who brings a wealth of experience in STEM, agricultural literacy and leadership development,” says Bonnie Burr, assistant director of UConn Extension. “Bill will be carrying out programs with the county’s 929 youth ages 5-19 and eighty-nine enrolled/ trained volunteers. He will also be developing and implementing statewide 4-H livestock-related programs.”
Growing up in Litchfield County, Davenport loved being a member of 4-H. He attended UConn with the idea of becoming a 4-H agent. But when the position in his county was filled by a new young agent, it was suggested he consider ag education. He changed his focus and set a new goal.
“Now I’m back to my original plan and I’m very excited to have this second career in my life,” he says. Davenport plans to build the 4-H program and expand the clubs. “I love teaching and have enjoyed working with high school students. As an agriscience teacher, I was heavily involved with FFA, and now I have the opportunity to bring agriculture to younger kids.” One of his goals is to increase after school 4-H programming as a way of introducing additional students to 4-H.
“The program has unlimited potential,” he says. “Particularly for families with young children looking for an activity that is wholesome and educational, while being open and welcoming to all students of any background.”
“The basis of 4-H is teaching the importance of farming and the natural world, but it also includes so many life skills such as public speaking, leadership, communication, self-confidence and community service, as well as STEM programs and many other activities.”
Those life skills will go a long way toward helping students in their careers. To highlight this point, Davenport asked one of his students to speak at a regional FFA advisory meeting.
He says, “These meetings are attended by people in the agricultural industry. An industry expert stood up after this student’s presentation and said that she interviews for hundreds of positions a year and would hire the presenter immediately as she had not observed such poise and confidence in many applicants with advanced degrees. That’s what we teach in 4-H and FFA.”
Davenport would like to see state 4-H and FFA work together. “Think of what we could do collectively to help agricultural literacy and the agricultural industry,” he says.
Davenport grew up on a dairy farm and found 4-H dairy and livestock judging to be a rewarding experience. He plans to revitalize interest in 4-H livestock judging. “I’d like to develop 4-H teams that compete nationally. I’d also be interested in mentoring UConn judging teams.”
As an educator, Davenport has received numerous honors, including 2004 Connecticut State Teacher of the Year, USA Today’s 2005 All-USA Teacher Team, 2004-2005 NAAE Outstanding Agricultural Education Teacher for Region VI and 2005 NAAE Syngenta Advocate for Agricultural Education Teacher Award. He is a member of the Connecticut State Board of Education and the National FFA Alumni and Supporters Council and served on the National FFA board of directors from 2013 to 2016.
Davenport houses twenty registered Ayrshire and Holstein dairy cows at his brother’s dairy farm, near the Connecticut border in Ancram, New York, and five heifers at his family homestead, Toll Gate Farm, in Litchfield. He lives with his wife Jill (Perham), also a UConn animal science graduate, and two daughters, Megan, a junior majoring in animal science and agricultural education at UConn and Allison will be at UConn in fall 2020.