For decades, Stratford Ecological Center at 3083 Liberty Road in Delaware has been a pillar in the Delaware community. Jeff Dickinson, the executive director/farmer, has been at the helm every step of the way, and recently he was awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award from The Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agriculture, and Environmental Sciences for his service in the community.
“The Distinguished Alumni Award recognizes individuals who have brought distinction to themselves and to the college through their commitment and leadership,” a press release for the award states.
Derek Snider, who presented Dickinson the award during a luncheon held March 7, said, “Dr. Jeffrey Dickinson is a fierce advocate for agricultural and environmental education for youth.”
Asked what the award means to him, Dickinson said it recognizes a life’s worth of work. He said he appreciates Stratford co-founder Louise Warner nominating him for the award and recognizing his efforts, and he added the award “speaks well of Stratford” as well.
Shortly after beginning his Ph.D. at Ohio State in 1992, Dickinson began working part-time at Stratford during its construction phase. After completing his Ph.D. in 1995, Dickinson was hired as the director at Stratford and has maintained the position ever since.
Dickinson’s role has changed over the years as the center has grown in scope. He said there were just three staff members in the beginning — an education coordinator, a farmer, and himself — and his role included anything from fundraising, law mowing, toilet cleaning, to helping with the farming.
Dickinson said he took over the farming as well in 2003 when Stratford’s second farmer left, having farmed “in a previous life” prior to coming to Stratford.
“I like the diversity of work between the farming, fundraising, and directing,” Dickinson said of what he most enjoys about his career. “More importantly, I love working with great people. I have a great group of staff, great volunteers, and a great board of directors. I just feel very blessed to be working among a large group of well-intended people.”
Dickinson said he has found himself to be even busier these days as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. Where he normally has staff and volunteers to assist him with the farming and other activities, Dickinson now has to manage things mostly on his own. However, he said he doesn’t begrudge the additional work, especially as it pertains to farming, which he called “one of the more enjoyable sides” of his work. The absence of volunteers has served to further grow his appreciation for the work they do, Dickinson added.
Like so many others, Dickinson said he is worried about the financial future of Stratford as the pandemic has had a large impact on the center.
“We have no income stream now, and we’re still maintaining staff and interns,” Dickinson said. “It’s a very uncertain future.”
Stratford generates 80% of its revenue on-site, he said. In addition to its inability to generate revenue on its own, Dickinson said Stratford’s endowment has taken a significant hit as well because of the virus.
Dickinson said he is not yet sure what the decision will be regarding Stratford’s Farm Camp, which starts in early June and is Stratford’s biggest on-site revenue stream. He said a decision will be made by May 1 as they continue to monitor the guidelines and restrictions imposed by Gov. Mike DeWine.
Despite all the challenges facing Stratford in the current climate, Dickinson said Stratford will find a way to overcome it.
“We’ll find a way to survive, one way or another,” he said. “The question is what it will look like. Will it become more virtual? Will we have to make staffing adjustments? How will it impact the internship program, or even how it will impact the public schools and their willingness and desire to want to come here and let us perform our mission. We’ll still be here, the only question is what that will look like.”
He added, “We have a very resilient staff and board. We’re hopeful that we’re here for the long haul, but the heyday may have already been seen. We’ll have to create a new heyday.”
As for what he is most looking forward to whenever life begins to return to some sort of normalcy, Dickinson said it’s being able to interact with the children.
“One of the main reasons I’ve loved being here for 30 years at Stratford is watching the kids realize that tomatoes can taste good, and that eggs come from chickens, and cows make milk,” he said. “Right now in the spring, we’re going through a beautiful wildflower season, and we have baby lambs, baby goats, baby chicks, and baby cows that we spend a year pulling together and making happen for this special time of year and nobody is here to enjoy it.
“That’s the biggest thing we’re all looking forward to is getting the public back in here and getting them reconnected to their food and nature, and seeing the joy in children’s eyes.”