How One Extension Office is Making the Transition
by Randy Weckman
In the minds of many, the image of the county extension agent is that of the Norman Rockwell painting from the 1940s. In that portrait for the cover of Saturday Evening Post magazine, Rockwell painted a picture of a visit to an idyllic farm where the county extension agent gave sage advice to a young apple-cheeked 4-H'er about a dairy calf. An equally angelic-looking girl holds a hen, as if she's waiting in line to see the agent.
That was more than a half a century ago, and times have changed. While county agents continue to provide education, advice, and support, their methods and the knowledge they transmit are vastly different.
"When I was an extension intern in 1970, our standard day was to return phone calls and answer mail in the morning and make farm visits in the afternoon," said Doug Shepherd, one of six county extension agents in Hardin County.
"Today, I still make farm visits where a particular need exists, but do so less often. More often, my clients want streamlined and quick answers," Shepherd said. "They don't have as much time for farm visits as in the past."
Shepherd said agriculture, farmers, and farming have changed dramatically since he was an intern.
"Science and technology have taken at least some of the drudgery out of farming, and our farmers are diversifying their operations at breakneck pace," he said. "For example, we have more than 120 goat producers in Hardin County, most of whom began production in the last three years. We have two new producers who are growing shiitake mushrooms, and we have a huge interest in vegetable production."
These new developments in agriculture, Shepherd said, require an agriculture and natural resources agent who can make farm visits and answer questions and who also can develop and deliver educational programs.
Charles Crutcher (left) works with Doug Shepherd,
Hardin County extension agent for agriculture and
natural resources, to improve his cattle.
Shepherd attributes much of the diversification to two factors: farmers' growing understanding that they need a mix of farm enterprises to make a go of it and the Agricultural Development Fund investment in new enterprises, which has given a big boost to production and to enthusiasm to try new ideas.
Below Right: Kathleen Nelson (left), who raises shiitake mushrooms, is one of the Hardin County producers who takes advantage of educational resources provided by Amy Aldenderfer, Hardin County extension agent for horticulture.
In Hardin County, the Ag Development Fund has made a huge difference in beef production, primarily through funding of cattle handling facilities, genetic improvements through artificial insemination and better herd sires, and better grain and hay storage facilities.
"Each of these Ag Development Board programs --just like extension--has been locally determined by the local farmers," Shepherd said.
A new grant approved by the Ag Development Board will improve swine production in the county.
"Swine production dropped dramatically in the 1990s as the industry became vertically integrated, causing small producers to have a hard time competing," Shepherd said. "The Ag Development Board's funding for swine facilities modernization--which will allow small producers to be competitive--has attracted 10 applications already."
Matt Adams, a Hardin County high school junior, finishes five to six
steers a year. Adams, who is in the county's 4-H livestock club, judges
meat with the help of Bonnie Jolly, Hardin County extension agent for
And what about all those goats?
Hardin County farmers also are responding to a ready market for kid goats that is developing within the 90,000-plus population in the county. Increasing numbers of Hispanic workers and Middle-Eastern immigrants purchase as many as 40 kids a month. During Ramadan, an Islamic holy month, the demand is considerably greater. The Kentucky Agriculture Development Fund has allowed expansion of the goat industry to meet the ready market.
And although the farm visit is probably in some measure passe, evening meetings and educational programs for producers keep Shepherd and the other agents in the office for long hours.
It isn't just commodity and council meetings that the six agents attend. Special interest meetings are a daily occurrence.
On one day, a partial list of meetings on the marquee listed the following meetings: a 4-H cooking class called Hot Stoves, the Hardin County Cattlemen's Association Board, a quilting homemaker club, the committee for the American Private Enterprise System Program, Get Moving Hardin County, and a farmer's market committee. Several other meetings were omitted because the marquee couldn't fit them all, including a night meeting for the Hardin County Cattlemen's Association.
And the night before, all of the agents in Hardin County participated in a program called Ton of Fun, which focuses on the eating habits and health of the entire family. In the program, families are weighed as a group on cattle scales. The families then attend periodic meetings where they learn how to improve their health and are weighed in if the family needs to trim up.
Today in extension, the lines are blurred when it comes to the work done by the agents.
Family and consumer science agent Liz Kingsland and horticulture agent Amy Aldenderfer, for example, are working together toward securing funding to build a structure for a farmers' market.
"We are seeking funding to at least obtain a site with a covered area for local producers to retail their produce," Kingsland said. "Our long term plan is to have a building with both a roof and sides."
Kingsland, Shepherd, and the other agents, including Rod Grusy, agriculture and natural resources agent; Amy Aldenderfer, horticulture agent; and Bonnie Jolly and Deana Reed, 4-H agents; also worked together on the area-wide Farm to Table program a few years ago that informed non-farm groups about modern agriculture. The six also work together to advance the agritourism industry.
4-H agents Jolly and Reed teach youngsters about 21st century agriculture and skills they need to have to contribute to a food-based economy.
Some of the techniques may have changed from the days of the Norman Rockwell painting, and the programs have changed to meet new needs of people in the county. But the basic mission of extension--taking the University to the people to meet needs through research-based education--remains vibrant and relevant, maybe more than ever.
"I believe that all of our extension work enhances our county and contributes to the future of our economy," Shepherd said.