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A Lifelong Learner Comes Full Circle

Shepherd Stearns grew up on a dairy farm and now serves as a value-added dairy extension specialist for the University of Tennessee’s Southeast Dairy Business Innovation Initiatives program (SDBII). What brought his career full circle? A master’s degree in agricultural and extension education from NC State University. 

After working in various roles within the agriculture and education fields, Stearns decided that pursuing graduate school could be an important opportunity to grow his skills and increase his capacity to play an impactful role in the food system. “It was a natural next step for me,” Stearns says.

He found his time as a member of the Wolfpack to be the perfect launching pad for the next stage of his career. It “opened up a huge number of new experiences for me,” Stearns says. “The most significant new opportunity I had was being able to conduct my original research.” The process of developing his thesis project from start to finish with the help of a supportive committee and taking courses across disciplines, including grant writing and milk processing, allowed Stearns to hone his technical, organizational, and communication skills. 

Shep Stearns
Shepherd Stearns

Stearns graduated in the summer of 2021 and credited the skills and knowledge he gained at NC State as the key to success in his current role at the University of Tennessee. “I get to bring all of the experiences I accumulated in my professional life prior to going to NC State and all of the new skills I learned in completing my master’s together every day to help dairy farms in the Southeast stay viable,” Stearns says. The SDBII program works across three states – Tennessee, North Carolina, and Kentucky – to protect and improve the financial sustainability of dairy farms by supporting their development of value-added product lines. “In the last few decades, the number of small dairy farms has declined precipitously both in the Southeast and in the US as a whole,” Stearns says. “Some small farms have been able to adapt by processing their milk supply into higher-value finished products like cheese, ice cream, and bottled milk.”

Stearns works alongside other experts to coordinate educational and technical support services related to value-added dairy for all three states and supports a three million dollar sub-award grant program that funds value-added enterprise development for dairy farmers and processors. The interdisciplinary and practical nature of the job is exciting for Stearns, who notes that “It’s a lot of fun! The field of value-added dairy touches on so many areas of knowledge. In my job, I need to be comfortable conveying concepts from the fields of agricultural economics, animal science, plant science, food science, and much much more.” The role is a great fit, mainly because it allows him to pass on knowledge gained growing up on a producer-processor farm and apply organizational and communication skills learned while at NC State.

Stearns is also eager to continue building his knowledge and skills at the University of Tennessee. “As I continue to learn more and become a better asset to the value-added dairy industry, I hope to begin taking graduate coursework in my new home department of animal science,” Stearns says. “Dedicated to being a lifelong learner,” he plans to pursue a Ph.D. in animal science with a focus on producer-processor dairy farms while continuing in his extension specialist role.

For Stearns, one of the most valuable components of the agricultural and extension education graduate program at NC State was the chance to meet and work alongside like-minded students of varied interests and backgrounds. “I was extremely fortunate to have an amazing group of peers at NC State. We helped each other along the way in our coursework and had diverse interests that complemented each other.” Stearns benefited from his peers’ insights and found that conversations with classmates pushed him to think about the discipline of agricultural and extension education in new and nuanced ways. “My fellow students in the agricultural and extension education graduate program were, and are, a huge source of inspiration. Schoolwork was just one component of very active lives for many of them. I had one colleague that managed to operate and grow a custom flower arranging business while going to school full-time to get her master’s. Another managed his own farm, including a youth education program that is nationally recognized, while working toward his Ph.D. …The relationships I formed with others in the program were one of the most fulfilling aspects of my experience at NC State. We all had the opportunity to work and grow together.”