Jill Shankel (center) hugs a llama while giving a talk to children and parents about fibers at Munnell Run Farm in Coolspring Township in 2005.

From being an office manager for 20 years to environmental expert the last 10, it took Jill Shankel, 55, a while to figure out what she wanted to do “when I grew up,” she said.

Allied News staff writer Felicia A. Petro talked to Shankel about her dream job with the Mercer County Conservation District (MCCD) in Coolspring Township, where she educates children about agriculture and water, as well as helping out watershed groups in the county.

FP: How do you like what you do?

JS: I love my job. It’s really fun to come in the morning. Of course there’s desk work, but there’s outdoor programming that takes place behind our office on Munnell Run Farm and it’s a really nice setting.

It’s a 163-acre working farm, what remains from the Mercer County Home and Hospital farm. Now it’s Woodland Place. The county still owns it, has leased it to Munnell Run Farm Foundation Inc. and it’s managed by the (MCCD).

Our focus is on agriculture and ecology. Our idea is you can’t separate the two. Any time you till the soil, you’re opening up to erosion. People try to farm land that isn’t farmable, like draining a wetland to farm. It’s not conducive. Farming is necessary. We have to eat. But if you use right methods on the right type of land, you’re not going to degrade the environment.

Our Agriculture Best Management Practices are on-the-ground projects to improve water quality. Munnell Run is a demo site for farmers who want to have practices for their farms.

The conservation district was established to improve the water quality of the watershed we’re in, which happens to be Munnell Run. If we improve the Munnell Run head stream, it will affect those downstream. It has managed it since 1989. To find out a nice history, our Web site is

Also,, and click under “conservation district,” is a good place to learn of conservation districts in general. It’s a strange entity. There’s one in every county in Pa. and every one does something different. In more urban counties, issues are very different – like urban sprawl – than what we’d deal with in an agriculture community.

FP: Do you believe the MCCD is being successful?

JS: Yeah, absolutely. Currently, we’re involved with a lot of projects through (state) Growing Greener grants to improve watersheds in the county. We don’t have regulatory power, but conservation districts provide education to farmers, developers, and municipalities.

FP: What do you feel is your expertise?

JS: I consider myself a non-formal educator. I don’t teach in a classroom, but I have to develop programs that meet Pennsylvania academic standards for schools and kids. Then parents also decide to bring their kids (to Munnell Run). For our summer program, we’ve had a huge increase in the number of pre-schoolers that come. Instead of 10 or 12, we now get close to 40 signed in the summer. The kids really know me as “Mill Jill.”

We teach them different aspects of farming. We want them to understand where their food comes from. Today, Grandma doesn’t even have a farm anymore. Most kids don’t have exposure to the whole food system, how this all happens. We feel it’s important because one day they will be a consumer of food choices. My job is more toward students and teachers, but overall the other staff deals with adults as much as kids. It’s an equal mix.

Our programs are in the good weather months (March to October), but we go out to schools occasionally during school year. I had a nice project this year with 7th grade students at Notre Dame School in Hermitage. We focused on the wetland in Buhl Park. We taught three classes, basically biology classes, then we took a good look at how to scavenger hunt in the wetland for frogs, plants and various characteristics of wetlands they have to find. It was pretty interesting. Wetlands help prevent flooding, filters out pollutants that run off – in that case, from the park. When wetlands are filled in, it makes trouble. For example, it’s a great habitat for wildlife. Some species suffered because wetlands were removed.

I say never underestimate kid power. Have an annual Earth Day celebration. We’re going to celebrate our 10th in April of 2009. We plant trees. We have anywhere from 100 to 300 people attending. Kids, with the help of their parents and grownups, plant about 1,000 trees every year. They have the energy to get it done.

This summer, we have a series of programs that start June 25 every Wednesday until July 16 for kids (ages 3 to 9). Summer programs are $2 per child. We also have community service programs coming up at Growing Place and the Mercer Library, and a five-day teacher’s workshop at Munnell Run Farm. We’ll then take a motor-coach to different (agriculture sites).

Academic state standards require teachers to get agriculture education in the classroom. It’s hard for teachers to do, so we show them it doesn’t have to be a science class. They can incorporate it into English, economics, social studies. This is partially funded with an environmental education grant through the (state) Department of Environmental Protection. They pay $40 and get two credits.

FP: How do you carry environmental work in your everyday life?

JS: I recycle every possible thing. I’ve always been conscious of using fuel, even before it was $4 a gallon. I try to combine trips and do my shopping on the way home from work. I live in the country. I turn out lights, not let water run. Replaced incandescent lights with fluorescent ones.

We can’t control the gas prices and energy prices, but we can control how much we use. That’s the only thing you can do other than supporting environmental causes.

FP: What hobbies do you have?

JS: It’s funny, I work outside all day but I love gardening. I like reading and flower arranging. I love pets. All around, I’m about gardening and animals. It was natural for me to go into the environmental field.

I’m going to be remarried this summer to Steve Rhoads. He works for Joy Manufacturing in Franklin. Between us, we have five dogs, a rabbit and two fish.

We’ve built a new house. We tried to do as much green construction as we could, like insulating well (in walls and windows) to cut down on energy costs. It’s more expense at first, but you save in the end.

FP: What’s your education?

JS: I needed a bachelor’s in some sort of environmental degree. I received mine at Slippery Rock University in environmental studies, with a dual major in English writing. I probably used the English degree as much or more with all the grant writing and articles I do.

I didn’t start college until 1990 (in her mid-30s). I had a lot of time to think of what I wanted to be when I grew up. For 20 years, I was an office manager at a pediatric dental office in Hermitage. It was good fun. I have a lot of experience with kids.

FP: With your background, how important is the environment to you?

JS: I feel it’s basic survival. It’s happened in the past: If people pollute it enough, people have gotten sick. To me it’s a no-brainer that you have to take care of where you live.

FP: How do you feel people are catching on?

JS: I think the fuel prices have been a wake-up call. People are conscious of how much they drive. They are forced because they can’t afford it or want to spend their money on something else.

Also, parents who bring kids in (for programs) recycle. They are much more aware than what they were 10 years ago.

FP: Do you believe we’re in an environmental crisis?

JS: The biggest crisis in agriculture is the loss of farmland, because of the expansion of development. We’re not going to get any more farmland if we take it away. We get up and eat breakfast without being aware of the nuances of how it gets there. It could become a crisis.

FP: How would you advise the average person on doing his or her part?

JS: Be conservative with energy use. We really promote buying local foods. The transportation costs aren’t there and you’re getting fresher, better quality food. It’s a big issue for us at Munnell Run Farm.

If I could choose a product locally, I’d do that rather than buying it at the grocery store. If (local farmers) don’t get financial support, it’s not sustainable and we’ll lose smaller family farms more and more because they can’t stay in business.

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