A Plant-Filled Career: Debbie Hamrick Honored as CALS Distinguished Alumna
Debbie Hamrick, 2023 CALS Distinguished Alumni Award winner, has turned an interest in plants as a child into a career that helps the agriculture community in North Carolina and beyond. Hamrick, a North Carolina State University alumna, is the director of specialty crops at the North Carolina Farm Bureau Federation, where she supports everything from pollinators to rural economic development.
Hamrick started working with plants as a young girl. Every summer she visited her grandparents in Robeson and Cleveland counties. As was typical at the time, cultivating large vegetable gardens to provide supplemental food was a rural North Carolina tradition. And her grandmother in Robeson County had a garden that piqued her interest early on.
“I know it wasn’t even an acre, but it seemed like it was five or 10 acres,” Hamrick remembers.
The grandchildren would help harvest and prepare crops like butter beans, Crowders and sweet corn to be processed. When Hamrick enrolled at NC State, she initially chose to study forestry but switched to horticultural science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS).
“I liked plants and being outside, and I had all this gardening background,” she says. “Horticulture was something that looked familiar to me. The more that I got into it, the more that I really loved it.”
As a student, Hamrick was involved in the Horticulture Club and worked during the semester in research labs, garden centers and food establishments like Mitch’s Tavern. During the summers, she worked in internships to expand her resume at Northrup King Seed Company, Monsanto and the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. Hamrick was also lucky enough to be in the horticultural undergraduate cohorts of the 1970s and 1980s taught by J.C. Raulston, an NC State faculty member and founder of the JC Raulston Arboretum.
“If you had J.C. Raulston as a professor, you got the plant bug,” Hamrick says. “It was just what happened. Sitting in his class is how I knew I wanted to work internationally.”
After graduation in 1981, Hamrick determined that journalism would be a natural career path to take advantage of her innate sense of curiosity and love of networking. Without any relevant work experience, she decided to volunteer her time with the University Communications team at NC State.
“If there’s something that you really love and you want to learn more about it, volunteer to do it,” she advises.
The team was impressed with her work and hired her for a part-time position. She was able to gain further media experience in a video production unit within the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. As grant funding for her positions was ending, she ran into Roy Larson, one of her former floriculture professors, while walking on Hillsborough Street. He told her about an opportunity in the horticulture publishing industry with Ball Publishing’s GrowerTalks magazine in Chicago, Illinois.
“I said, ‘I’ve been preparing for this. I’ve got all this media experience and a writing portfolio. I would love to interview for that job.’”
She was hired as a staff writer and quickly rose to managing editor and then editor. Her international travel for the publishing company led her to develop a business plan for an international magazine that launched in 1989 as FloraCulture International. As editorial director at Ball Publishing, Hamrick oversaw the launch of Green Profit trade magazine as well as the expansion of the company’s book publishing division and trade show/conferences business. She edited multiple books for commercial floriculture producers, including the 17th Edition of the Ball Redbook. She also led the development and launch of multiple industry conferences.
She continued working for Ball Publishing after moving back to North Carolina in 1997 to be closer to family. Hamrick’s 20-year career in horticultural publishing took her to 30 countries as a journalist and keynote speaker.
Then, in 2004, Hamrick began her role with the Farm Bureau. As director of specialty crops, she works with “everything in the horticulture industry,” including controlled environment agriculture, ornamental nursery and floriculture production, cut flowers, fruits, vegetables, nuts and cultivated herbs. In addition, her role as specialty crops director includes honeybees and apiculture, local foods and aquaculture, mariculture and wild-caught seafood.
She’s also involved in agritourism, broadband access and rural economic development. She is engaged in many stakeholder groups including the N.C. Fresh Produce Safety Task Force. Hamrick has served and continues to serve on the advisory boards for the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, NC Agricultural Institute, NC Sea Grant and the NC Rural Center, among others.
Hamrick works closely with many faculty and staff across CALS and has leaned on expertise from NC State throughout her career.
“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that NC State University is working on behalf of North Carolina agriculture, especially in the areas that I cover,” Hamrick says.
Hamrick has been selected to receive a CALS Distinguished Alumni Award for her outstanding career achievements and commitment to the land-grant principle of service to the community, state and nation. She will be presented with the honor during the annual awards ceremony on Oct. 6. She previously received the Outstanding Alumni Award from the Department of Horticultural Science in 2003.
“I’m normally the kind of person that comes up with names to nominate for awards, not the kind of person that would get such an award like this,” Hamrick says. “It’s a high honor for me to be recognized.”