Turning Problems to Solutions
Story and Photos by Amy Dromgoole
There are many issues and problems in agriculture the general public does not recognize. However, three women have used their expertise to solve some of these problems.
Three agricultural communications graduates have done just that. After Norma Johnson, Mary Jane Buerkle and Shelby Shaw earned their agricultural communications degrees from Texas Tech University, they have gone on to display their passion for the industry while bettering the agricultural community in and around the city of Lubbock as Chamber of Commerce
“A major role of the chamber is to bring the right people together in the same room so that conversations can turn problems to solutions,” Johnson, Vice President of Legislative Affairs, said. “I don’t know that I could have done this without the background that I have.”
“Having an agricultural background is a big advantage when you’re at a chamber in a city whose economy is so dependent on the ag industry,” Johnson said. “I can only compare it to maybe having an automotive industry background if you’re working for the Detroit Chamber.”
“At first glance, transportation wouldn’t seem to have to do anything with agriculture, unless you’re familiar with the industry,” she said. “Because of my background, I knew that shipping and transportation were huge issues for Lubbock’s cotton industry, especially in big crop years and ever since the mid-1990s when the majority of our crop began moving from Lubbock to West Coast ports, rather than to the Southeastern United States.”
Like many former students in the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, all three women were influenced into the agricultural industry by their families and have implemented their degrees into a career that spreads agriculture outside of its normal realm. Their story is in a large part attributed to the background and journey these women have taken to get to where they are today.
Growing up in Meade, Kan., Shaw was raised on a ranch, showed livestock and was involved in 4-H activities.
She came to Tech to judge livestock. However, she made the best of her experience and was involved in Block & Bridle, Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow, Agri-Techsans and Collegiate 4-H, just to name a few.
While at Tech, she was also a communications intern at Plains Cotton Cooperative Association. In this position, Shaw wrote articles for multiple publications. “My internship at PCCA was what aided in me getting my internship at the American Angus Association because I was one of the few interns who had stories published,” she said. “My internship there gave me so much more than just experience, it led to my job at the chamber and also lifelong friends.”
Before moving back to Kansas in December 2009, she was the communications director at the chamber. She worked as the voice for the chamber and served on many committees.
“Working with our members and volunteers at the chamber was a tremendous privilege,” she said. “They are great people with the biggest hearts and they want to continue to make Lubbock thrive and grow. That is an awesome thing to be a part of.”
Overall she said she believes these three ladies work seamlessly together because of the bonds they created prior to their positions at the chamber. “We know each other’s habits, limits, and moods, plus we’ve been through life events together, which make you closer,” she said. “They’re like family to me – we just click.”
Buerkle grew up in Rochester, Texas, and now serves as the vice president of communications. As the daughter of a peanut and cotton farmer, Buerkle understood farming was their way of life in her small town of 378.
She began her quest to promote agriculture at Tech, after serving as an Agri-Techsan, National President of Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow and a Chancellor’s Ambassador. Through these activities she found her voice for agriculture and was able to relay her message to many influential people.
During her time at Tech she also solidified her knowledge and love for agriculture while working for a newsroom clerk at the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. After working in her position for two years, and after transitions were made at the newspaper, she became a part-time reporter on the agricultural beat and continued this throughout her master’s program at Tech until she was encouraged by Norma Johnson to apply for the job at the chamber in 2004 by.
As vice president of business development, Buerkle was in charge of planning the annual Business Expo, The Hub City BBQ Cook-off, Chamber Golf Classic, Ag in the Classroom and all business seminars. She was also in charge of the Agriculture Committee, the Water Conservation Council and one of her favorite events—Ag in the Bag.
Upon Shaw’s departure, Buerkle became vice president of communications. With this new position, she is now responsible for media relations and all of the chamber’s publications including the monthly newsletter, “e-mail blasts” and an annual report. She still oversees all of the chamber’s agriculture-related committees and events.
“I feel as though my degree allows me to better serve the ag-related committees and events at the chamber,” she said. “I already had so many connections through the college and in the community and region. Our staff is really close and we all share a common thread in that working at the chamber isn’t just another job— it’s a passion.”
“I think we all have a good work ethic and want to excel -- not just personally, but as a chamber. We have such similar backgrounds and can relate to one another. I also think knowing each other before we all wound up at the chamber really helped as well. There’s a respect we all have for each other that really shows when we work closely together—we can completely be ourselves.”
Another small town girl from Meadow, Texas, Johnson has also influenced the Hub City in ways that benefit the agricultural community. Like Buerkle and Shaw, she was also involved in agriculture as the daughter of a cotton classer and an active member of 4-H and FFA.
“Being in 4-H and having friends throughout the district and later, the state, really allowed a small-town girl to look beyond my small town,” she said. “I have gained some diverse experiences and enriching relationships, some of which are still alive today.”
While at Tech, she remained involved in Collegiate 4-H and became active in Collegiate FFA, Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow, Ag Council and the Agronomy Club.
“Ag communications is truly one of those areas that can take you anywhere, and my degree certainly has,” she said. “I’ve been able to do everything so far in my career from going to Japan to teach their top chefs about grain sorghum for food use, to helping scout cotton fields for herbicide damage.”
As the vice president of legislative affairs, she is responsible at the local, state and federal levels for issues management, grassroots political advocacy and government relations. She has a special focus on transportation, education reform, health care and of course, agricultural policy. She also serves as a liaison between the Lubbock business community and lawmakers at all levels of government.
“I think there’s a common thread we’ve been able to weave in our work styles and work ethic that has been very influential, but we’re just a small part of a great team,” she said. “Also, I think we’ve held ourselves up to a pretty high standard, because our collective work has a spotlight on it for what agricultural communications majors can do in a non-agricultural setting.”