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UT Agricultural Extension Service Is Here to Help You Grow

by Lee Morgan

Everyone across the state knows about the University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Service, right?

Sure, you’ve heard of it. But do you really know what it is and what it might be able to do for you?

Basically, it’s what it sounds like—an extension of the university itself. More than one university, in fact: In addition to the network of schools under the University of Tennessee umbrella, Tennessee State University is also involved in the extension’s programs. In layman’s terms, the extension service connects residents of Tennessee to experts across the state who are educated in the areas of family and consumer sciences and agriculture. These agents are located in offices across the state, ensuring that—wherever you live—there is someone nearby who can help you succeed in a variety of arenas. From landscaping, gardening and horticulture, to nutrition, farming and animal health, to money management, 4-H youth development and beyond, the UT Ag Extension probably has something useful to share with you.

Agent Karla Kean, who works in the Montgomery County office, is among the virtual army of agents working in specific areas of expertise across the state. She has been with the service for 21 years and is well-versed in all the programs and assistance options available from her office and those across Tennessee. Kean specializes in small farms and horticulture and is a perfect case study when it comes to the types of programs the extension service offers.

“Each extension agent has a specific specialty,” Kean said. “Mine is horticulture and small farms, so I work in consumer horticulture with homeowners if they have garden questions, as well as working with small farms and landscapers and tree-care specialists.”

Among the most popular programs available to people in the community is the Master Gardener Program. In nearly every community across the state, this 13-week fee-based volunteer program not only educates future gardening masters on various topics to help them improve, but also requires 40 hours of volunteer community service using the expertise they’ve just gained which, in turn, helps out even more people in the community.

“Through the 13- week master gardener course here [in Montgomery County], we meet one night each week for 13 weeks,” Kean said. “We provide a different educational topic each week. You take the class and pass the test and then give back 40 hours of community service volunteer hours over the next year. Most counties have ongoing volunteer projects throughout the year with their community associations.”

Kean mostly works with organic farmers and people with innovative ideas about using their land, which is often 20 acres or less.

“These people want to get off the grid and get back to nature,” she said. “That’s kind of where I come in. We have other agents in the extension offices who specialize in helping out the larger farmers, those growing tobacco or other large row crops, as well as livestock.”

And it doesn’t end there. The list of resources the service offers and the networking opportunities they provide is extensive.

Nearly four years ago the UT Extension began work on the Beginning Farmer Outreach Program. This program is geared toward people who want to start a farm and have a background that is well suited to the job. In the Montgomery County office, which is in close proximity to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Kean says they focus on retired military.

“Among our target audience are those people who have retired from or are transitioning out of the military who want to start a farm. The people coming out of the military have a good skill set, are good managers and are able to operate large equipment. So there are a lot of career opportunities out there for them,” Kean said.

“We can sit and visit with them and get an idea about what they want to do. We can get them started on a business plan. We can get them in touch with the local USDA office that offers those cost diversification programs. The extension doesn’t offer grants, but we can certainly put people in touch with those who offer grants and cost diversification.”

Kean stresses that perhaps the most important part of the outreach program is getting small farmers together and educating them on the resources available to them. “We want to get them together and let them know, step-by-step, outside of the extension service, who else they need to talk to. There are a lot of programs out there that are not being utilized by small farmers. They are a well-kept secret and [farmers] just don’t know about them.”

The UT Extension Service is also concerned with efficiency. The Slow Your Roll Program allows gardeners and small farmers to learn how to prevent gardening disasters before they happen. The program takes the form of a “think before you plant” workshop focused on saving time and money through the use of sustainable practices.

“It is called ‘Slow Your Roll’ because we want people to slow down and think about what they’re doing and what they want to do before they ever put a plant in the ground,” Kean said. “It’s common for people to come in when they have grown an acre of tomatoes or an acre of blueberries and after things aren’t going well, they decide to call us: ‘Why are my plants dying?’ We want to catch these people on the front end and make sure they are doing their soil testing. And we can also help them look at the site to evaluate the properties of the soil and things like that.”

Agents meet with those in need of advice in their offices and are also available for home and farm visits at no cost.

These programs only scratch the surface of what the extension service can do for you; whether you are a home gardener, a small or large farmer, or want to improve the lives of your children through the many opportunities offered by 4-H Youth Development programs, the UT Ag Extension Service is an invaluable resource.

Since 1914, the UT Ag Extension Service has been working in communities across Tennessee, and they want to be a useful tool in the lives of everyone who needs them.

“We are here for our communities,” Kean said. “We are a resource and we are your tax dollars at work. So, whether people have home garden questions or commercial concerns about row crops or livestock, we are always here to help.”

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