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Middletown Life

Life Lessons: ‘I want to make the same impact on agriculture the way Mr. Cook did for me’

Apr 09, 2021 12:44PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

In pure, unabashed defiance of contemporary residential planning, Cook Family Farms stands on the outskirts of Newark, surrounded by a vast suburban forest of copycat houses in look-a-like developments.

The farm’s 250 acres along Fraser Road are a last vestige reminder of a world that has, with exceptions, been permanently wiped from the American landscape, the way a teacher erases schoolwork off of a chalk board.

Although it stopped its dairy production in 2014, Cook Family Farms is now a supplier of beef, pork and lamb, the farm welcomes visitors at the end of a long dirt road with the comforting crow of roosters, the contented sounds of well-fed heifers and the unmistakable presence of cats too numerous to count. It is a farm of continuing activity, one primarily operated by Cook’s brother-in-law and a rolling roster of visiting students, entomologists, veterinarians and livestock specialists, as well as the general public who pick up their orders of lamb and pork chops, ham and bacon, steaks, ground beef, cheese, cheese spreads and eggs.

Although its imprint is smaller than the 1,500-acre tract of land that began as a farm in 1855, this is where his grandfather learned farming and where he passed it on to his son and subsequently onto Cook, where he now lives with his wife Rhonda, the stepmother of his daughters Mindy and Madison.

And somewhere within its stalls and barns, this farm is also where Stephen acquired the skill and the inclination that would lead to a 25-year teaching career spent inspiring thousands of young people to learn about an industry that few truly understand, and most take for granted.

You learn by doing’

Perhaps the first lesson of farming that Stephen Cook learned was that there are no off-days in farming.

As a youngster, Cook became quickly immersed in the family business, largely out of necessity. The crack of dawn would see him feeding the more than 120 heads of livestock, then head to school and return at the end of the day to help his father wherever and whenever a need arose. By the time he reached Middletown High School in the mid 1980s, Cook balanced school and lacrosse with his requirements on the dairy farm, acquiring knowledge and skills through frequency, routine and absorption. In between, he attended agricultural and leadership conferences through the national FFA, previously known as Future Farmers of America.

“Whatever my grandfather taught my father, he passed on to my siblings and me,” Cook said. “You learn by doing, and everything I was learning was through a hands-on approach. Seeing my father work from dusk to dawn every day gave me a sense of work ethic.”

When he graduated from high school in 1988, Cook enlisted in the U.S. Army National Guard, in order to serve his country, acquire military benefits and still be able to work on the farm. When he first entered boot camp, he was clocking seven-minute mile runs, but after six weeks, he was finding that the constant barrage of running, sit-ups and push-ups was punishing his body and making it nearly impossible to recover. His legs were heavier. His muscles would not replenish their energy.

During a diagnosis with the family’s physician, Cook was told that he had Limb Girdle Muscular Dystrophy, a disorder that affects the voluntary muscles around the hips and shoulders, and progressively leads to the loss of muscle strength. After leaving the National Guard and on his mother Martha’s encouragement to further pursue his education, Cook enrolled as an agrisciences education major at the University of Delaware.

Despite of his worsening health, Cook still managed to work on the farm in the morning, attend classes at UD, return to the farm in the afternoon to do more work, and often return to campus for evening classes. He also managed to find the time to co-found Alpha Gamma Rho, an agricultural fraternity, on campus.

Inherited passion is best shared with others

Soon after he graduated from the university in 1996 at the age of 26, he took on his first teaching position – teaching agrisciences at Caesar Rodney High School. He knew he had a wealth of knowledge, but he did not know how to present it to an audience of students. He wanted buy-in from them, but how?

The answer, he began to realize, was an easy one: Get them to follow his passion.

“I put my students in a position to learn,” said Cook, who is now in his fourth year at Appoquinimink High School. “My teaching really has nothing to do with me, but what my students have been able to do, whether it’s showing a farm animal at a show or helping on our farm.

“For nearly all of the students I have today, they are several generations removed from agriculture and have no real connection to an industry that was fairly common here 40 years ago,” Cook said. “While agriculture is not in their immediate family history, I tell them that if they dig deep enough, they will find the hunters, farmers and gatherers in their family history.

“One of the challenges that agriculture faces is that our young people don’t understand what farmers have to put up with in order to keep their farms going. I tell them that they are the most important part of this industry, because you are the consumers. What you buy in the grocery store is going to determine what the farmers will farm. What you buy will determine what people are going to grow and the methods they will use to grow those products.”

If his classroom at Appoquinimink High School serves to provide a historical background and understanding of the role that agriculture plays, then certainly Cook’s second classroom is the farm itself. It is an incubator of application, research, and a practical and hands-on workshop of farming, and during any week, it is common to see the farm welcome agricultural science students and teachers from the University of Delaware, as well as other future farmers, veterinarians and leaders of the agricultural industry.

Every year, a group of Cook’s students take a selected number of cattle and farm animals for showing at regional and national FFA conventions, and at Cook’s last count, more than 40 teams have earned championship standing.

On Saturdays, as many as one dozen students attend Open Farm, an opportunity that lets them visit the Cook Family Farm to participate in projects and perform manual maintenance. Cook affectionately calls this group of students his “Hogs,” and categorizes them as those most inspired to pursue a further interest in agricultural sciences from the initial spark they received in Cook’s classes.

Over the past 25 years, hundreds of his past students have gone on to various careers in agriculture as farmers, veterinarians, teachers and research scientists. Sydney Spence, a student in one of Cook’s classes, said that she wants to pursue the study of pre-veterinary science at the University of Delaware, in preparation for a career as either a livestock veterinarian or a farmer.

“When I was in the ninth grade, I enrolled in Animal Science and had the amazing opportunity to have Mr. Cook as my teacher,” Spence said. “He began talking about inviting students over to his Open House on Saturdays, and up until that time I had absolutely no interest in anything to do with farming.

“He began to tell us stories of his youth at the farm, and how began to be inspired to share his experiences with others. That’s all I needed to hear. I want that same experience. I want to make the same impact on agriculture the way Mr. Cook did for me.”

The first time Caitlin Walton stepped foot into Cook’s agricultural class as a freshman at Caesar Rodney High School, she could not distinguish one farm animal to the next, but on that day, she absorbed the first of many lessons her teacher would give her.

“He held up a blank sheet of paper in front of the class and told us, ‘This is what you begin high school with, a blank slate to what you’re going to accomplish in high school,’” Walton said. “He told us, ‘Everything you do here is going to add to this paper, and it’s going to turn into your resume. You can take a lot of opportunities to fill up this resume. It’s your choice.’”

Today, Walton is in her sixth year as the agricultural sciences teacher at Milford High School, and many of the lessons she learned from Cook have been passed on to her students.

“Mr. Cook has gone above and beyond in helping his students,” Walton said. “As he tells me, ‘It’s not about me. It’s about inspiring the next generation to be passionate about such an important industry.’

“He teaches so far beyond agriculture. Mr. Cook teaches life lessons.”

The truth is that I need them’

In 2002, Cook visited the medical center at The Ohio State University, where he was finally told that his body would no longer be capable of rebuilding muscles. Over time, the disease progressed, and in 2009, he began life in a wheelchair. It has been his constant companion ever since.

It is with bitter irony – and perhaps with the sweetness of recognition -- that as he struggles to perform every day tasks from his wheelchair and places more and more reliance on Rhonda, his teaching efforts have earned him an increasingly high standing among the best if Delaware. In 2020, Delaware Today ranked in the top 10 honor roll of the state’s best teachers, and the College of Agricultural and Natural Resources honored him with a Distinguished Alumni award.

“Everything on me is broken except for my mouth and my brain, but I’m motivated more than ever now,” he said. “Good students who want to work outside of the classroom at the farm has been what keeps me going, and I love seeing them take control of their own destiny.

“The truth is that I need them. I give them a solid agricultural education. I am confident that when my students who pursue agriculture in college they have received just as much hands-on knowledge of farming to represent themselves well in this industry. In exchange for that, I continue to receive so much in return.”

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].

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