I don’t know what has grown more in the past decade – the number of challenges farmers face or the number of agricultural Extension agents we’ve hired to help you address them.
UF/IFAS Extension has to respond to the ever-changing needs of 20 million Floridians, but its work force has become increasingly specialized in agriculture.
In 2005, we had 136 agricultural agents, about a third of all agents statewide. We now have 198 – almost half of our total number of agents.
When we started this new wave of ag agent hires, James McWhorter was a U.S. Army communications specialist in Afghanistan. That put him behind the wheel of a Humvee driving Green Berets through the countryside and handling their radio communications on the missions. After six years in the military, he left to get degrees in agriculture, and we hired him two years ago.
James brings modern expertise and an old-school respect for his elders to his job as Highlands County livestock and forage agent. He’s quick to seek introductions to the locals from his boss Laurie Hurner, who is the county Extension director, just like her dad was.
James received a phone call from rancher and Farm Bureau member Del Murphy one morning earlier this year inquiring about Bermudagrass. By early afternoon, James and Del were walking the pasture in Avon Park. And he met the matriarch of the Murphy family farm, an octogenarian who still mounts a horse to move her cattle and still puts staples into fences.
When James is asked what the woman’s first name is, he’ll tell you, “Mrs.”
It’s a testament to the trust he’s earned that James doesn’t even have to see the land owners to inspect a weed control trial or take a soil sample. When he asks for permission to set foot on a rancher’s property, he’ll get responses like rancher and Farm Bureau member Charlie Cullens gives him: “Lock the gate behind you.”
It all sounds like the Extension agent of a bygone era. It’s also the agent of today. By adding scores of agricultural agents to the team in the past decade, modern Extension has kept a close eye on agriculture and its tradition of directly serving producers.
Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
By Jack Payne