Q&A with Nancy Cox, UK's new agriculture dean

Nancy Cox
Nancy Cox UK College of Agriculture

When Nancy Cox takes over as dean of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food & Nutrition, on Jan. 1, she will be the first female dean of the college. As associate dean for research for 12 years, she more than doubled outside funding for the college and lobbied successfully for a $30 million renovation of the Veterinary Disease Diagnostic Lab.

Here are some of her thoughts on the future of farming and the school's role:

Question: What changes are we likely to see in Kentucky agriculture?

Answer: As our economy comes back, we will have some more opportunities to research in new areas — such as biofuels. And there has been a lot of emphasis put on adapting to climate variability.

One of the other things, which is not a big science project but is still important, capturing the true agriculture economy in Kentucky, capturing its true impact.

"We in agriculture often thought of 'farm gate receipts' as what we measure. But the ag and forestry business cluster, which comprises food processing, and lumber processing as well, is much bigger. We have done a study on that recently and we would count at least a quarter of a million jobs in that cluster, and I think that's low because we were conservative. I think we need to capture that better — while we still put the land at the center, we need to look at the whole picture."

Q: What will be the "next big thing" in Kentucky agriculture?

A: "It's really hard to say what the next big thing will be. Maybe a lot of smaller things," Cox said.

Tobacco's place at the college hasn't gone away, it's just changed, she said. The Kentucky Tobacco Research and Development Center, which is under the college, is moving into the regulatory environment.

"That may seem strange but if cigarettes and tobacco are to be regulated, then a land-grant university needs to at least provide techniques that are unbiased to do the measurements that inform those regulations," Cox said. "The FDA has produced a list of approximately 100 chemicals in tobacco products, and many don't even have a sound scientific technique to measure them, and we're proposing to provide those techniques. We're interested in seeing that whatever policy that comes out of the FDA comes out of sound science."

Q: Beyond tobacco, what are some other growth areas?

A: "The college is trying to make sure our students have all the appropriate international experience to fit into the business world, because so much of the big ag companies are global," Cox said.

UK is stepping up the number of faculty who take students out of the country as part of their coursework, she said. And working with officials in China to build connections there.

"We have several outstanding researchers who are from China and they are providing some important links to universities there they have affiliations with," Cox said. "Lot of animal nutrition, meat-type research. And certainly the horses. When you're the horse capital of the world, there is interest in learning how we do things."

The Chinese have shown interest in many different horse breeds, including quarterhorses, sport horses and Thoroughbreds, she said.

"Mostly what we do is education and training," Cox said. "We have invited groups over for Horse 101 classes, or to visit the entities around here like the Kentucky Horse Park and Keeneland. It's a big potential growth area for us. In some ways, it's just a continuation of what we've always done, which is to look for new opportunities to grow agriculture and help our citizens find new markets."

Q: What else is out there on the horizon for the college?

A: "We are looking at new crops in the biofuel area, and we will always continue to look for new opportunities ... We have moved from being tobacco dependent to being rather diverse," Cox said.

New areas of interest include hemp, which is in legal limbo at the moment.

"I'm certain that if hemp is legalized so that farmers can grow it, we will do support programs for that crop. Our part of the conversation is the economics and the agronomics, rather than the politics," she said.

Biofuels in general are drawing a lot of interest. "We are looking at woody crops like timber, looking at miscanthus, switch grass, sorghum, corn stover. We've had projects for years trying to set the groundwork for these crops if there was a market for them. Now with the prices of natural gas (so low), things have slowed down. But we've got a good background if the market comes back or if hemp is grown."

Q: What does it feel like to be the first female dean of the agriculture college and the first in the southern region?

A: "I haven't reflected too much on being the first female dean, but have really gotten lot of comments from other women in state and leaders in agriculture that it means a lot," Cox said. "So I am very proud to have the distinction."