By INGRID UTECH
SEBRING — Susie Bishop cares deeply about Highlands County, and many appreciate her energetic efforts to promote both agriculture and environmental sustainability. “She’s a leader in all activities which she undertakes. Professionally and as a volunteer, Susie has contributed greatly to our community,” Highlands County Citrus Growers Association President Ray Royce, a professional colleague and a friend of Bishop, said recently.
Bishop has been executive director of the Highlands Soil and Water Conservation District since October 2012. Highlands is one of 58 Florida districts organized to promote the wise use, management and conservation of soil, water, and related natural resources.
In 2018, the Association of Florida Conservation Districts named Highlands County the Top District in the State. “The District won the award because of the expansiveness of its programs,” said Clegg Hooks, deputy director, Office of Water Policy, Florida Department of Agriculture, at the time.
Scott Kirouac, Highlands District Board chair, and Dr. John Causey, former board chair, state without hesitation that Bishop is responsible for the District’s award. “Susie is integral to the District’s success. She is professional, thorough, accurate and dependable,” Kirouac said. “Her efficiency has enabled us to reach out and help other counties and to manage a few programs statewide.”
Programs have brought in millions of dollars annually to benefit agriculture and the environment. One of these is the Agricultural Best Management Practices program. Agricultural landowners can be reimbursed up to 75% for implementing BMPs that conserve water and reduce the amount of pesticides, fertilizers, animal waste and other pollutants entering our water resources.
From October 2017 through June 2018, the Highlands District processed and managed over 153 BMP cost-share projects, funded by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Another successful program is the District’s Mobile Irrigation Lab. It enables property owners to obtain free onsite analyses of their irrigation systems. They also get recommendations on how to improve the efficiency of those systems. Last fiscal year, the lab completed 148 evaluations on approximately 8,100 acres with a potential annual water savings of 721,000,000 gallons of water.
Statewide programs that the District has managed include the Citrus Re-establishment Program, a $6,100,000 contract to encourage citrus growers to replant groves that have been ravaged by citrus greening, and the Florida Automated Weather Network, which provides agricultural landowners with private weather stations to help them make more educated and informed decisions regarding when to schedule irrigation.
In addition to managing the programs, Susie also helps promote the programs by reaching out to landowners, county and state officials, and others. “That’s where the fact that she is very personable, likable and pleasant, is a tremendous asset,” Royce said.
From October 2006 to June 2012, Bishop was Business Development manager at Atlanticblue. She was instrumental in the successful adoption of a Large Scale Comprehensive Plan Amendment for the protection of 50,000 acres of Blue Head Ranch.
Prior to that, she was for six years the area director for the Highlands County division of United Way of Central Florida. In a Sept. 14, 2009 newspaper article, she is quoted as saying: “I met a tremendous number of people through United Way. I loved the reward of seeing all the people [who were] helped and touched.”
Susie brings the same dedication to her volunteer work as she does to her career. She serves on the board of Ag Venture, a three-day event that provides an opportunity for third graders to gain hands-on knowledge and an appreciation for local agriculture.
Alan Jay Wildstein, one of Ag Venture’s sponsors, has known Bishop since she was with United Way. “I’ve greatly admired her character and commitment to our community. As one of the main organizers for Ag-Venture, Susie helps create a tremendous positive experience for hundreds of our county’s youth,” Wildstein said.
Every year Bishop staffs a dairy station, where students get up close and personal with dairy calves, see the feed they eat, learn how milk gets from the cow to the grocery store, and find out about other dairy products. They also make their own butter.
Why dairy? Bishop is married to Nick Bishop of the Bishop Brothers Dairy, a fourth generation dairy farm.
Bishop works alongside School Board Member Donna Howerton who staffs the beef station. “Susie is a hard worker, always involved and always willing to share with others,” Howerton said.
One night of the event is set aside for adults to enjoy barbecue steak dinners. Bishop and Howerton are among those who share the responsibility of making the dinner a success.
Bishop also serves on the Board of Leadership Highlands, where future community leaders selected from the public and private sector meet monthly over the course of a year to learn about the government, agencies and economic enterprises that exist in Highlands County.
Bishop also manages the books for Bishop Brothers Dairy, a responsibility she assumed from Nick’s mother. The dairy continues to be owned by Nick’s dad and his dad’s brother, and managed by Nick.
Susie and Nick Bishop have been married for 38 years. They have two married sons and three grandchildren: Hayden, 8; Landon 4, and Kate, born in July.