Whitney Elmore — the executive director of the UF/IFAS Pasco County Cooperative Extension Office — has her fingers in lots of pies.
Her office provides information, classes and programs on topics ranging from gardening, to nutrition to caring for cattle, budgeting money, and more.
She’s had a hand in all sorts of initiatives since arriving in Pasco County in 2014.
She seeks out partnerships to help foster improved services and a better quality of life for people living in Pasco County.
She explains it this way: “There’s often times nothing wrong with keeping things the same, but sometimes everything is wrong with keeping things the same.
“And, time does march on.
“Change doesn’t have to be scary. It doesn’t have to be hard.”
But, she continued: “We move at such a fast pace now, change is inevitable.
“So, if I can help people make those positive changes in a timely fashion — that helps them and their community — then I’m doing something right.”
Plus, she thinks she’s in the ideal role to help make that happen.
“I think it (Extension) is one of most potential-filled places to make change,” she said.
In her view, her office is “an extension into the community,” which uses “applied research” to address issues.
Pasco County Extension is a partnership between the University of Florida and Pasco County.
It offers a way to “really dig in and help people — grassroots, at the core,” Elmore said.
She thinks her practical nature, combined with her life experiences, laid the groundwork for the career she has today.
A rural childhood
Elmore grew up in Barren County, Kentucky — a place with no traffic lights, or even a stop sign.
In that county of 13,000, she said, “Either you knew everybody, or you were related to them.
“Honestly, it was for me, an idyllic place to grow up.
“We lived in what we called the hollers … the rolling hills in Kentucky.
“I got my wilderness education.
“In the summer, I pretty much slept outside,” she said.
She hunted arrow heads, went fishing, turned up soil in the fields.
“It wasn’t until I was in high school that I realized, most people don’t have those same blessings,” she said.
Her family’s roots in agriculture stretch back for generations.
Her dad was a tobacco farmer.
“They were very poor, very poor,” Elmore said.
She traces her love of learning to the example set by her mother, who graduated at the top of her high school class and went on to teach elementary school.
“We never were told ‘Do your homework. You’ve got to make good grades.’ It was just kind of — we wanted to.
“You have that model and you desire to live up to that, even though that expectation is not really leveled on you,” Elmore said.
“I was very lucky that way. I didn’t have that pressure.
“I was really allowed to make my own choices, very much, growing up.”
Elmore’s dad was mechanically minded, and because of him, she learned how to take apart an engine and put it back together again.
“I had support from all of these different angles,” Elmore said.
“I was never prompted or prodded or pushed to be anything other than what I was and wanted to be,” she added.
But she saw how her mother’s education lifted the family.
Her dad saw that, too.
“It gave him opportunities that he would have never had,” Elmore said.
The staying power of FFA
Elmore credits her sister as being a source of inspiration, too.
“My sister was in FFA (Future Farmers of America), so I saw that as a small child. And I watched her advancing, and doing so well, in public-speaking contests,” Elmore said.
The Extension leader credits her experiences in FFA for teaching her invaluable skills she still uses nearly every day. Plus, the scholarships she won through FFA paid for most of her college.
“You put it all together — those experiences, but then that support — that can take you anywhere you want to go,” Elmore said.
She attended Western Kentucky University, which turned out to be the perfect choice, she said.
“Looking back, so much of what I do in my everyday job and life, it comes from the information I gained there, and, really from being in FFA in high school,” Elmore said.
Elmore was an avid golfer and at one point had considered turning pro. Instead, she combined her love for golfing and for learning and earned her bachelor’s degree in agriculture and turfgrass management. Next, she attained a master’s in turfgrass management and later, a doctorate in plant pathology.
She taught at Santa Fe Community College and at Middle Georgia University before accepting the Extension position in Pasco County, in 2014.
A change agent in Pasco
Much has happened since Elmore arrived on the scene.
She’s quick to credit many others for their part in creating positive change.
For instance, she said, Cathy Pearson, assistant Pasco County administrator, played a pivotal role in revitalizing the Stallings Building, at 15029 14th St., in Dade City. The building, which is referred to as the One-Stop Shop, offers programs and houses an incubator commercial kitchen.
Elmore also praised the leadership of Bill Cronin, president and CEO, of the Pasco Economic Development Council Inc., who set up EDC’s East Pasco operations at the Stallings Building.
Next, a private company, Welbilt, a global manufacturer of commercial restaurant equipment, stepped in to equip the kitchen.
A collaboration between Pasco County, the Pasco County Fair Association and Pasco County Extension resulted in the new extension office, at the fairgrounds property.
The fair association secured a $1.1-million state grant, which was combined with $197,000 from the fair association and $244,000 from Pasco County.
Elmore also has been involved with the creation of community gardens.
The first one was the Watson Park community garden — a partnership between the University of Florida and the city of Dade City. It was the first partnership of its type in the state.
Since then, a number of community gardens have sprouted up around Pasco County.
Elmore’s office also has served as a conduit to help people find the resources they need.
After Hurricane Irma hit, for instance, she worked with Pasco County and the University of Florida to help get the word out to round up volunteers to help a blueberry farm where hurricane winds had uprooted and toppled about 100,000 blueberry bushes.
The general manager at Frogmore Fresh Farm told The Laker/Lutz News at the time that Elmore had reached out to him and asked if she could help. He thought maybe 20 people would come to pitch in, but more than 200 volunteers showed up.
Her love of learning goes on
Elmore never tires of picking up new knowledge.
She recalled traveling to Rwanda and Uganda in 2017, as part of a study abroad experience.
Among other things, the trip amplified her appreciation of the power of community gardening.
“As we were traveling on these dirt roads through these villages, you see these small communities with these community gardens,” she said.
The gardens were in desolate areas, which were poor and challenged by disease, crime and the lack of opportunity — but the people in the gardens were smiling, Elmore said.
“They’re coming out of there with food to feed their family,” she said.
“There was hope in those gardens. What was also in those gardens was empowerment.
“First, enough food for today, then enough to sell, then enough to share … When you have that level of empowerment, it can change whole communities,” she said.
In a sense, Elmore uses many of the skills needed in gardening to help nurture a better way of life in Pasco County.
In short, it’s about serving everyone and helping them to understand their options and resources, the Extension leader said.
“If you leave anybody behind, the whole community is going to be harmed by it,” Elmore said.
Published March 29, 2023