County Extension Agents Learn What Sustainable Agriculture Means to Kentucky through Unique SARE Training Program
LEXINGTON, Kentucky – For the many Cooperative Extension agents who are focused on applying their area of expertise to their locality, learning and growth can come from stepping outside what's familiar. So discovered a group of eight Extension agents on a recent trip to Kentucky, where they set out to learn what sustainable agriculture means to the Bluegrass State.
Participating in a unique training program known as the Sustainable Agriculture Fellows program, the group spent four days in the Lexington area touring family farms, horse-breeding operations, tobacco farms, Kentucky State University’s aquaculture research facility, a food co-op, livestock processing and marketing facility, and the University of Kentucky’s research farm. Such a lineup gave the group the opportunity to see how the overarching concepts of sustainability are being applied to one state's unique agriculture.
“We saw the movers and the shakers in the industry. They use every opportunity available to them to diversify and make the business more profitable,” said Nathan Winter, an Extension educator with the University Minnesota. “This was a great opportunity to learn more of what they are embracing.”
The program, sponsored by SARE and the National Association of County Agricultural Agents (NACAA), introduces county agents to sustainable agriculture concepts and challenges them to assess strengths, weaknesses, and relevant applications in current agricultural systems. A major component involves tours such as this one, aimed at exposing agents to the huge diversity of sustainability in practice.
This spring’s program brought county agents to Kentucky, and was hosted by the University of Kentucky.
“The goals of this learning experience are to deepen the understanding of sustainable agriculture and to catalyze changes in an Extension agent’s work,” said Lee Meyer, Kentucky SARE state coordinator at the University of Kentucky. “Some may already know a lot about sustainable agriculture, but we don’t think that they know a lot about the challenges and opportunities facing farmers in Kentucky. We hope that digging into our unique situation will help them get insights that they can take home and use in their programs.”
Meyer said he wanted participants to question what it really means to be sustainable by focusing on two main themes: how Kentucky’s tobacco industry supports sustainable concepts, and how non-traditional ag industries (aquaculture, equine, tourism) contribute to sustainable agriculture.
“We wanted to take Extension agents to see farms and businesses that weren’t necessarily seen as sustainable farms,” said Meyer. “One of their tasks was to assess the sustainability of each operation based on their own definition of sustainable agriculture, and then ask what can be done to improve sustainability and what challenges exist.”
Maud Powell, a small farms specialist at Oregon State University, said that seeing how Kentucky agriculture is scaling up will help her when working with small farmers who only manage about 10-20 acres.
“That just may be the sweet spot for the producers to be working with,” she said.
Sophistication, innovation, value-added, and creativity were just some of the keywords the participants used to describe the agribusinesses they visited on the tour.
“I did not expect to find this sophisticated high-end market in Lexington, and the producers are equally sophisticated to service that market. It doesn’t exist everywhere that producers have the wherewithal to take advantage of local foods,” said Tom Maloney, a senior Extension associate in the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University. “It was fascinating to see that the consumers and the processors are pulling the farmers and telling them what they need. So often you see producers pushing things and then figuring out how to market them.”
Said Marlin Bates, a horticulture specialist with the University of Missouri, “The program definitely broadened my horizons. I may not apply livestock techniques given my horticulture background, but cumulatively it’s nice to know how other ag processes and production practices work.”
And therein lies the benefit of the Sustainable Agriculture Fellows program – the value participants place on it as an opportunity to discover different agricultural concepts and create awareness among their constituents.
“I’m the only ag specialist in our office, so I’m expected to learn here and share with others, even if all of the topics aren’t in my background. It’s good professional development,” said John Porter with West Virginia University.
Brad Burbaugh, located in the Department of Agricultural and Extension Education at Virginia Tech, agreed that the Sustainable Agriculture Fellows Fellows program plays an important role in networking with customers and building relationships.
“Farms used to be closed systems and now, by and large, they are open systems, which has proven successful for people in Kentucky,” said Burbaugh. “We, as Extension agents, represent key resources in that networking and building those relationships.”
The 2012 Sustainable Agriculture Fellows Fellows will be learning about sustainable agriculture in Iowa later this year.
University of Kentucky also posted a press release on this event.
About the SARE/NACAA Sustainable Agriculture Fellows program. The two-year Fellows program provides a training opportunity that enhances understanding of sustainable agriculture and provides broad-based, national exposure to successful and unique sustainable agriculture programs. Participating Fellows are better able to create new programs that meet the needs of their local clientele. Learn more about the Sustainable Agriculture Fellows program, including biographies of current Fellows.
Published by the Southern Region of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program. Funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Southern SARE operates under cooperative agreements with the University of Georgia, Fort Valley State University, and the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture to offer competitive grants to advance sustainable agriculture in America's Southern region.