UK extension agents, technology change, but goal still is to help farmers

vbroadus@herald-leader.comSeptember 2, 2012 

"Consult your county extension agent" is a phrase full of positive associations: Helpful information is forthcoming, a solution will be found. For generations of rural high-school students it's been a go-to response when the teacher pulls a pop quiz in ag class. How could it ever be wrong?

This summer, the University of Kentucky Extension Service is marking 100 years of sending agricultural agents out to counties, where they stand ready to be consulted and provide vital information for farmers. One of them is Michelle Simon, Scott County agent for agriculture and natural resources.

The working conditions and responsibilities have changed a bit since 1912, when agent Charles Mahan made his rounds in a horse and buggy and worked without benefit of telephone. Simon visits farmers in her four-wheel-drive GMC Sierra, takes calls as she drives, and does much of her work from a contraption called a computer. In 2012, the landscape of Kentucky farming is vastly different than in Mahan's day, thanks in no small part to the knowledge gained from UK's agricultural research.

The years have seen another change for county ag agents everywhere: Since the mid 1960s, "Tolerate Hank Kimball references" has been an unwritten part of the job description. Simon says she's heard, "We've come a long way since Green Acres," once or twice since becoming county agent.

But unlike Hank Kimball, fictional county agent for Green Acres' Hooterville and surrounding acreage, Simon provides only research-based information and would never, for example, recommend leaving the county if times get tough.

The age of enlightenment

Simon, who is 24, attributes most surprised reactions to "the age thing."

"People have come in and said, 'I'd like to speak with the extension agent,' and I'll say, 'I am the extension agent.'"

Once people start to talk to Simon and see her do her job, age becomes a non-issue, she thinks. "Everybody's been really nice."

She also understands that many people might still expect to find a man in the job. Everybody before her who held the position in the county fit that description. But the first female ag agent in Kentucky was hired nearly 30 years ago, and today, close to 20 women hold the position across the state.

As agriculture and natural resources agent, Simon focuses on crops and livestock; she also handles horticulture issues. Other responsibilities include a monthly newsletter and soil, hay and water testing.

Simon is quick to point out that she doesn't do it alone. A county advisory council provides recommendations, and support staff and a hearty corps of volunteers are essential. There are educational workshops and demonstrations, farm days for the public, and a farmers market and extensive community garden. "Every day is different," she says. For Simon and other agents, that variety is one of the appeals of the job.

A little monkey business

Mary Stumbo, Kentucky's first female agriculture agent, was in her early 20s, too, when she went to work in Pike County in 1982. "You got to deal with all kinds of people," Stumbo says, from scofflaws down by the river to Paul Patton, who was then Pike County judge-executive but would go on to be governor.

"I got a phone call about fertilizing that I could tell was about marijuana," says Stumbo. When a caller won't identify the crop, that's a tipoff. Once on a farm call, a spider monkey jumped down from a tree and bit her. "You don't expect that in Pike County," she says. One of her accomplishments was starting the Pike County farmers market. Now her sister, current Pike ag agent Suzanne Stumbo, helps organize it with the help of volunteers. Mary Stumbo says when she started work it was a bit of a "good-old-boys club," but she soon became just one of the guys. Essential to gaining acceptance in the community was not to pretend to have an answer. "If I didn't know, I told them I'd get them an answer," she says.

Thirty years later, much the same is true for Simon.

"The greatest challenge of the job is content-related questions," Simon says. "A lot of it comes from experience. When I started that first month, I had to call a specialist on just about everything, but once you learn it, some of the stuff will repeat seasonally.

Last year was so wet, and this is a drought year, so it's a complete change of pace. "But you have to learn what to expect when the questions start coming," she said. "Farm calls are the basis of extension," she says, and they help her get to know people. She averages about five or six a week. On a single day she might examine lightning damage to a landscape tree and then go look at a farmer's silage corn, "taking nitrate samples to see if it's safe to feed the cattle."

Higher nitrate levels are one outcome of the drought, signs of which are obvious as you drive past almost any corn field in the county.

"The drought really hit at a horrible time for corn, right when it was pollinating," says Simon. "It's really affected yields. If it doesn't pollinate you're not going to get very many kernels. When temperatures got so high, it wasn't worthwhile to try to irrigate."

The rising price of feed as a result of the drought has everyone concerned.

The heat this summer was stressful on the cows themselves. "I've had calls from cow-calf operations; with the heat, the estrus cycles are affected."

Home-schooled in farming

Simon's background put her on an inside track to the job. She grew up on a small farm in Campbell County. One of her earliest memories is driving a tractor before her feet could reach the pedals while her father and brother threw bales on the wagon.

"You just have to throttle up and steer," she says.

She showed quarter horses in high school and held offices in 4-H. At UK, she majored in animal sciences.

"I wanted to be a vet when I started, but the more I found out about the classes that were offered the more I got interested in extension.

"I worked at the dairy farm, the beef unit and sheep unit, the swine unit. That was the first taste I got of the research side of it. It's kind of cool to see that some of the results we're seeing now are projects I worked on," she says.

Simon has been on the job two years, the same length of time she's been out of college.

"I was really lucky it opened up. These jobs are kind of hard to come by and a lot of people that get them stay until they retire," she says.

Now she's taking classes toward her master's degree in crop science. The extension service helps structure the program to fit agents' schedules, she says.

Simon is conscious of the century of service she represents. She takes the job of providing research-based information seriously. So if you come to her complaining of deer in your flower beds, and she lets slip an old wives' remedy, you can be sure that it is totally and unequivocally off the record. If you come despairing of your tomato crop, she'll never, unlike Mr. Kimball, insult the vegetable's IQ.

The dedication of Simon, the Stumbo sisters and all the others going back to Charles Mahan in 1912 means that, even though high school ag teachers may shake their heads and deduct points when they see it, "consult your county extension agent" is always a correct answer.

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