Ohio’s new director of agriculture ready to build bridges

Dorothy Pelanda, Ohio's first female director of agriculture, ready to work

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Dorothy Pelanda
Ohio's new director of agriculture is an attorney, but she grew up on a farm in Union County and has roots in 4-H.

SALEM, Ohio — Don’t be fooled. Even though Ohio’s new director of agriculture is a lawyer and former state representative, her rural roots run deep.

Dorothy Pelanda, who was nominated by Gov. Mike DeWine and took office last week, is the Buckeye State’s first female director of agriculture. She grew up on a farm in Union County, although her father was also an attorney and then judge, and the farm ground was rented to a local farmer.

Still, she grew up knowing the responsibilities of the farm, making sure Debbie, their donkey, and Chief, a Shetland pony, were fed and watered before she got on the school bus. And like most farm kids, she explored the farm’s ponds and fields and woods, joined 4-H, learned how to be frugal and get dirt beneath her fingernails.

Today, she and her husband Sam Gerhardstein own 18 acres of her family’s original farm, and have built a house that overlooks their pond and woods. Gerhardstein retired from Columbia Gas of Ohio as director of governmental affairs and now owns a legislative and regulatory consulting firm.

And while her lawyer father certainly influenced her career path, Pelanda credits her mother, who was a home economics teacher, with building daughters who could stand on their own two feet.

“She wanted her three daughters to learn independent living skills, because she would say to us often, ‘ I never want you to be dependent upon a man to support yourself.’”

To those who question her ag credentials, Pelanda points to the ag people and industry veterans on her staff, “who are here because they have a passion for agriculture like I do.”

Instead, she sees her role as building and sustaining relationships to move ag issues forward. As a lawyer for 30 years and legislator for eight years, Pelanda says her “relationship-building skills enabled me to tackle difficult problems …by my ability to negotiate, mediate and compromise for a satisfactory solution.”

Pelanda and Gov. DeWine inherit a contentious water quality issue created when former Gov. John Kasich issued an executive order last July declaring eight northwestern Ohio subwatersheds be considered as “watersheds in distress.” That triggered a series of legislative hearings, heated Ohio Soil and Water Conservation Commission meetings, as well as behind-the-scenes political jockeying to stave off the manure and fertilizer application regulations such a declaration would likely trigger.

The first week of the new administration, the Ohio Department of Agriculture changed the status of the proposed watersheds in distress rules in the Register of Ohio to “To Be Refiled.”

That means, Pelanda told me, “we neither rejected them or support them. It simply pushes the pause button, to allow this new administration to consider the direction it wants to go with those policies.”

She said there is no timeline for immediate action. The commission’s next meeting is slated for Feb. 26.

If you want to get her talking, ask Pelanda about her love of covered bridges, or the Cathedral in their woods, her “she shed” (it’s really a writing shed and grandchildren shed, she says), or her habit of writing short notes to friends or people she reads about in the newspapers.

And she emphasizes “the most important job I will ever have is a mother.” She has three children: Brian, 35, a lawyer in California; Doug, 33, a nurse at a Columbus stroke center; and Zoe, 24, a hair stylist in Columbus.

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(Note: Editor Susan Crowell interviewed Ohio Director of Agriculture Dorothy Pelanda in a brief phone call Jan. 17. This article was updated to correct the age of Pelanda’s oldest son.)

 

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