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10 Exceptional Extension Specialists
For more than 100 years, Cooperative Extension Service has been extending the science and knowledge of land-grant universities to the citizens of America. Some say this unique system of remote science application has outlived its usefulness. Bigger farm operations, private business experts, budget cuts, and cyber communications have passed it by, they say.
Well, not so fast! Here are 10 examples of Extension specialists (of the 10,000 Extension employees) and the programs they lead across the country. In most cases, no one else is doing the work they do, and no one is doing it independently – no biases, nothing for sale.
It is still exceptional Extension.
1. Ron Graber, Kansas State University
The biggest issue in agriculture? It might be water quality, where rural and urban meet and sometimes clash.
Ron Graber sees that one close up. The Kansas State University Extension watershed specialist educates on the topic to both rural and urban audiences and provides technical assistance, as well.
He and Kansas State Extension helped achieve success involving better stewardship of the herbicide atrazine in the watershed around Wichita. “Sometimes, atrazine spikes to levels above the drinking water standard,” he says.
“Through a partnership of farmers and the city, we minimized those spikes by implementing best-management practices from Extension. The city provides funds to help the farmers, and that saves thousands in treatment costs,” he says.
Extension remains the primary source of unbiased, science-based solutions to issues affecting people and their livelihood, he says. “We don’t tell anyone what to do. We only provide facts enabling them to make informed decisions.”
2. Deborah Zak, University of Minnesota
Tribal leaders from the White Earth Nation in northwest Minnesota had a simple request for Deborah Zak and her University of Minnesota Extension colleagues: Help us lower our high school dropout rate. The tribe asked Zak to use the natural resources of the reservation to teach tribal youth that math and science have always been in the Ojibwe traditions.
That was in 1998, and they’ve offered the White Earth Academy of Math and Science for 4th through 8th graders for the past 19 summers. Students measure forests and trees, test lake water, inspect for invasive aquatic species, and keep nature journals to record changes they observe.
“They also record podcasts of tribal elders talking about changes in their lifetimes,” says Zak.
In 2017, the Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine shared career possibilities in that field.
“Extension’s future is bright as long as we keep current with changing demographics and issues that are important to our citizens,” Zak believes.
3. Zach Grant, University of Illinois
This is Extension like you’ve never imagined it. Zach Grant is an urban agriculture Extension specialist for Cook County. Yes, that’s Chicago, with 5.28 million people, six University of Illinois Extension offices, and 75 employees!
“The transition to urban agriculture has been spearheaded by major cities, Chicago included,” says Grant of his specialty. “We help entrepreneurs establish urban food systems.”
Most city farmers grow fruits and vegetables on vacant lots and less-than-acre parcels of land tucked among buildings. Some use high-tunnel greenhouses; others use storage containers to grow micro-greens (small vegetables) for specialty markets.
One of Grant’s initiatives is connecting urban food growers and bankers, a link that hasn’t existed before. He’s also launched a Master Urban Farmer Training Program, patterned after the Master Gardener Program.
“There aren’t enough of us in Extension for the population we serve,” he says. “So we concentrate on underserved needs and areas of real food insecurity.”
4. Matt Smith, Ohio State University
After petroleum, what’s the next greatest natural resource deficit of the U.S.?
If you said seafood, bingo! Matt Smith, the Extension aquaculture specialist for Ohio State University, is changing that by bringing his aquaculture experience from Alabama and Arkansas (both fish-farming leaders) to the Midwest.
Ohio State just launched a three year USDA-funded project called Aquaculture Boot Camp for beginning aquaculture or aquaponics (fish combined with soilless plant production) farmers. Applicants dedicate one day a month for a year to learn the business.
“Students come to our South Centers for hands-on learning opportunities and even farm tours and internships. This will assist aquaculture expansion in the Midwest and, hopefully, reduce our seafood deficit,”
5. Kent Shannon, Missouri Extension
When Missouri corn and soybean growers wanted to implement a technology-based, on-farm research program, they found the perfect partner in Extension agricultural engineering specialist Kent Shannon. He’s been helping farmers harness technology throughout his 25-year Extension career.
The two-year-old Missouri Strip Trial Program brings together GPS technology, yield monitors, variable-rate controllers, and drones. “Once you program the strip trial instructions into the equipment, then you just plant and harvest and get a printout of results. Technology does the work,” says Shannon.
“This is an Extension niche in providing unbiased, research-based information. I like helping farmers see what works on their farms.”
Shannon has also worked with farm drones since 2013 to get in-season crop images to verify ground cover and crop stands.
There’s much more to come, he predicts. “New multispectral cameras will tell you when a field is under stress from lack of nutrients or pests.”
6. Melissa O’Rourke, Iowa State University
Melissa O’Rourke spent 20 years as a private attorney, working with Midwest farm families on estate and succession planning, litigation, and other issues.
“I did some contract work for Iowa State University Extension, and then I had the opportunity to join them full time as an Extension farm business management specialist,” she says. “It was the perfect storm of combining my background in agriculture, education, and law. I help farmers plan for the future.”
Estate and succession planning are the bulk of that consulting, but she also helps farmers find and keep good employees. “When I can help a farm family think about the future, solve problems, mend relationships, and start on a good path to the future, that’s very satisfying,” she says.
“I have no monetary gain from the work I do,” she says in support of Extension. “This service is not available to agriculture anywhere else.”
7. Stephen Brown, Matanuska Experiment Farm
It was a match made in heaven 10 years ago, when Stephen Brown signed on as the new Extension agent on the Matanuska Experiment Farm in Palmer, Alaska. The avid wilderness hiker now works with many pioneer farmers in the river valley and travels to some of the remotest spots in the U.S.
“Teaching people how to be self-reliant gets me excited,” he says. “How many Extension agents get to snowmobile hundreds of miles up a frozen river and camp in the snow to teach Arctic gardening to an isolated Eskimo community?”
With the warming climate, some think Alaska could become the new Midwest, he says, not the least bit in jest.
Early in his career, Brown did a two-year Extension stint in New York City. “People are very uninformed about how food is produced,” he says of the experience. “If I wasn’t in Alaska, I’d go back to New York in a heartbeat.”
8. Larry Moorehead, Tennessee Extension
There’s a lot of be said for finding your niche and sticking with it. That’s Larry Moorehead, the County Extension director in Moore County, Tennessee, for 40 years. “We’re in the business of helping people, and that’s why I’m still doing it,” says the Extension veteran.
With his animal science background, Moorehead helped a lot of cattle producers use science-based nutrition to triple daily gains on backgrounded steers. However, hay wastage is the issue that made his reputation.
“When round bales came on, we stored them outside and wasted over a third, proven by a test I conducted here in Moore County,” he says. “We started building storage barns, and I’ve carried that story from one end of this state to the other. I’m known as the Hay Barn Man in Tennessee.
He believes local demonstrations of new farming practices set Extension apart. “We bring the university to the farmers,” he says.
9. Tony Cook, Auburn University
Yes, Extension reaches outer space. Tony Cook, an Extension 4-H specialist at Auburn University in Alabama and a lifelong space dreamer, has led more than 20,000 youngsters from 45 states through 4-H Space Camps in Alabama and Florida.
With recent renewed interest in space and technology, in general, farming in space is a hot topic, he says. “If we’re going to Mars, we have to take a farm with us.”
He marvels that space-worthy food technology – hydroponics and vertical farming, for instance – is leading a food revolution on Earth, particularly in urban environments.
Cook dreams big about the potential for science in 4-H programs. “We can do a learning program about space agriculture with online classes and offline applications. Access to the knowledge is in the palm of our hand,” he says.
For him, it’s not happening fast enough. “The technology is here now!” he says with some frustration. “I see so much opportunity for even greater things in Extension.”
10. Nathan Mueller, Nebraska Extension
Nathan Mueller, a Nebraska Extension educator for cropping systems in two counties of northeast Nebraska, opened a café for farmers in his region.
His Crop Tech Cafe doesn’t have coffee or donuts, as it exists only in the cyberworld as an agronomy blog. It’s a place farmers can hear from experts, ask questions, and chat with neighbors.
“We post audio recordings from radio interviews, highlight upcoming events and university resources, share presentations, and much more,” Mueller explains.
Other Nebraska Extension crop educators have joined the effort, and last year, they served 3,000 Nebraska users in the Crop Tech Cafe.
Mueller says helping farm growers interpret research from the University of Nebraska and neighboring state institutions is the most satisfying thing he does. Farmers know how quickly climate and soils change as you go east to west and north to south, especially in a state like Nebraska, he says.
“We have 29 distinct ecoregions, and that brings lots of additional questions, such as ‘Will the results be the same on my farm, in my fields, with my equipment, and with my management?’ ”
Helping farmers find those answers can be the most impactful thing an Extension agent does, Mueller thinks. He likes to use the Nebraska On-Farm Research Network, coordinated by two other Extension educators, to evaluate practices and products locally and to share results with all farmers.
“We provide unbiased, science-based agronomic information to growers,” Mueller says. “Any potential conflict of interest is removed. Nebraska Extension is a great partner for that third-party service.”