Leanne Skelton, '79

Yearbook image of Leanne Skelton
Current image of Leanne Skelton

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.  It’s not” - from Dr. Seuss's The Lorax - has governed Leanne Skelton's contributions to agriculture in more than 40 states, and in multiple countries.

After earning her AAS from Alfred, then a BS in Plant Pathology from Cornell, she spent two years as an agricultural research officer/Peace Corps Volunteer at the Totokoitu Research Station in Takitumu, Rarotonga, Cook Islands.  There she increased islanders' agricultural independence, teaching them about growing their own foods and relying less on imports, while mentoring agricultural students, and leading field trials in several new varieties of crops.

Not long after her return to the US, she began a 33-year journey with the US Department of Agriculture, starting in Boston, and winding up based in Washington DC, with considerable travel to wherever fruits and vegetables and specialty crops were being grown.

Leanne was the first woman selected as Branch Chief of a grading/inspection program in USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service’s nearly 100-year history.

She is especially proud of successfully establishing the first USDA-FDA Liaison position in produce food safety.  Initially a three-month assignment, it became a long-term assignment between two independent Federal departments encompassing the final 10 years of her career and continuing after she retired in late 2019.

Leanne also was instrumental in establishing a workshop in Native American culture and interactions, regarding produce safety on Native lands, and now provided to non-Native American USDA, FDA, and university agricultural authorities.  Originally intended as a one-time event, it serves as a critical shaping force underpinning various aspects of governmental agricultural interactions with Native Americans.

Among the multitude of recognitions and awards she has won, she takes particular pride in two.

The 1996 USDA Secretary's Group Honor Award for Excellence for the Partners In Quality Program recognized her and the team she led for the development of a brand new quality certification program.  This represented a huge mindset shift and operational shift compared to the program that had been in place for 70 years, saving money, and better-involving farmers and industry in the process.

And in 2011, both wanting and needing farmers and growers to succeed, in the face of adjustment and confusion from a new produce safety law, Leanne's efforts to listen to their concerns, address them, and access helpful resources, won her recognition with the FDA Commissioner's "Leveraging Collaboration Award."

Since the mid-1990’s, Leanne has spoken as an invited technical subject matter expert year-after-year at many government and industry functions in the US and overseas.  In introducing herself to those audiences, she always noted that while her office was in Washington, DC, her roots - and the bases of her knowledge and decision-making - were in the rolling hills farm country of Western New York.