Shaun Francis serves as an Extension horticulture specialist for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Get to know Francis in the following interview.
Tell us a little about your path into your current field. Who and/or what inspired you to pursue public health or science more generally?
I became interested in agricultural science at a very early age. This interest was nurtured by my parents, both of whom were very active gardeners. As a kid growing up in tropical Guyana, South America, gardening was a year-round activity, and I was always excited about getting out of my school clothing after school and being able to partake in whatever was going on in the garden, whether it was planting vegetables, harvesting or just clearing weeds from the garden beds. As I grew older, I was assigned my own garden bed, and I was allowed to harvest and sell what I grew on that bed. I still remember villagers coming to our yard to purchase stalks of “fine-leaf thyme” that I grew on my garden bed.
During my time in high school, I chose the agriculture stream as I felt at home whenever we visited the school’s farm for practical sessions. Right out of high school, I enrolled at the Guyana School of Agriculture (GSA) and earned a diploma in agriculture after two years of study. This institution is similar to a community college in America, and the qualification is similar to that of an associate’s degree. During my time there, it was only the second time in the institution’s history they had admitted a 16-year-old. As a result, I was pampered and celebrated throughout my time at GSA, particularly because the first 16-year-old that was admitted became Guyana’s Minister of Agriculture during my time at the institution.
This was definitely my greatest source of inspiration in pursuing my career path.
How has funding from USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) shaped your professional development and assisted with your current projects?
NIFA funding has contributed to shaping the course of the latter part of my professional development. These funds, combined with other sources of funds, were used to establish the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB ) Sweet Potato Foundation Seed Program within the state of Arkansas. Being a first for the state, there was a need for research activities in order to provide farmers with cutting-edge technology. This program therefore paved the way for my migration to the U.S. as a graduate student.
After graduation and further graduate study, I was employed to continue my research activities related to sweet potato production in Arkansas. NIFA funds continued to expand the activities of the UAPB Sweet Potato Foundation Seed Program, and this has been instrumental in moving Arkansas to the number-five position among the leading sweet potato states in the U.S. These funds have enabled UAPB to not only provide farmers with clean, quality sweet potato planting material but also the technical assistance required for ensuring success in the field.
With these resources being made available within the state, Arkansas sweet potato growers no longer have to cross state lines to purchase quality planting material from neighboring states — which has resulted in a substantial reduction to the transportation cost associated with production. This ultimately increases their profit. More importantly, however, it vastly diminishes the potential of introducing pests and diseases from these neighboring states.
What advice do you have for current students who may be interested in pursuing a similar career path?
Firstly, my advice to current students who may be interested in pursuing a similar career path would always be to “follow your heart.” My first love for gardening has led to a marriage that has been extremely rewarding throughout this journey. I say this because of the countless experiences of people who, despite their early training as agriculturalists, ventured off into other professions. One of my best friends from the Guyana School of Agriculture gave up his employment at the Ministry of Agriculture in Guyana for the military and became the second in command of the Guyana Defence Force. While at the time I felt he was making a blunder — given that he had to undergo all this new training — that was where his heart was.
Secondly, it is important to think outside the box and make use of all the resources related to career choices. Too many students today relate agriculture to just digging in the dirt. A successful career in agriculture doesn’t always have to relate to digging in the dirt. I have had the very fortunate experience of mentoring my own son, who was so impacted by his high school business administration teacher that he wanted to study business administration. However, his childhood exposure to farms and farming that resulted from his field visits with me during my early career had already instilled a love for things natural. Rather than being torn between his newfound love and his childhood passion, he was steered toward a major in agricultural business. There are too many resources related to career paths in agriculture for our students to remain ignorant.
Finally, a big part of my responsibilities involves working with farmers. For those students who aspire to be Extension professionals, it is very important to always consider yourself a student of your craft. Never assume the mindset that you know it all, and never approach a situation thinking that the next person, regardless of whom that person may be, cannot teach you something new. After doing what I do for over 30 years, I continue to learn something new almost every day.
Photo: USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture is celebrating Juneteenth. Various images of farmers working in the field and a family spending time together. Courtesy of Adobe Stock.