At a time when some question the validity of Cooperative Extension in general and county agents specifically, a group of six Extension agents in northeast North Carolina annually step well beyond the expected an put on one of the very best field days of the year.
The Northeast Ag Expo, named for northeast North Carolina, has been going on for a few years now. Last year the topic was corn — corn was a hot topic in 2007. This year the topic was peanuts — peanuts are making a comeback in the upper Southeast. Next year the topic will be another timely one — small grains.
The Northeast Ag Expo is planned, developed and brought to reality each year by six county agents and their dedicated staffs to bring the latest in research and Extension information on what they deem to be the hottest topics for farmers in their area of the world.
The six counties involved include: Camden, Chowan, Currituck, Gates, Perquimans and Pasquotank.
The six movers and shakers who have made the Expo work for the past few years are: Mark Powell, Camden County; Mike Williams, Chowan County; Tommy Gandy, Currituck County; Paul Smith, Gates County; Lewis Smith, Perquimans County; and Al Wood, Pasquotank County.
One of the mainstays in the Northeast Ag Expo program, Mike Williams, county coordinator in Chowan County, ended his long career with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service this year. Typically, he waited until after the Expo, held this past year in his county, to retire.
In recognizing Williams for his 30 years of service to North Carolina State University and the people of North Carolina, Tom Melton, North Carolina State University Ag Programs Leader, noted the obvious — “This event isn’t something that just happens, it happens because of the dedicated Extension leaders, like Mike Williams, who make it happen.”
The 2009 Ag Expo is already in the planning stages. Sometime later in the year, plots will be designed, a farm chosen, and the next Expo will get its beginning. By the time several hundred people come to the chosen farm, the crops will either have been harvested or will be there for attendees to see.
Each year there is some tweaking of the program to account for new challenges that pop up during the growing season. And, to account for plot failures that always occur thanks to weather and a plethora of other production problems.
In 2008, the presenters at the “peanut” expo included most every scientist at North Carolina State University involved in peanut production. Next year I have no doubt the list of small grain specialists will be no less impressive.
Each year it gets more difficult to find sponsors for the event, says the 2007 host Al Wood. So far, he notes sponsors have come through in a big way to fund the event. In 2008, 13 sponsors from the big — Delta and Pine Land Company — to the small—Gates County Farm Bureau contributed to the program.
Unlike field days at university-owned facilities, the Northeast Ag Expo is held annually on a farmer’s field. The test plots that go in on the farm are done primarily by the county agents, with the support of university researchers.
That says something special about the Extension and research faculty at North Carolina State University. They have plenty to do, not the least of which are college supported field days and grower programs, yet they find time to help plan field plots and report on results.
Each year the program participants and attendees get together for lunch. This year, it was a low country boil, complete with shrimp and corn on the cob. The social side of the event gives farmers a chance to sit down and visit during the growing season — something that happens all too rarely they say.
At the administrative level, deans and directors and other hierarchy that govern land-grant institutions continue to battle the oft-cited Land Grant Death Spiral. If they want a good example of how the foot soldiers out in the county are fighting the death spiral, they should take a close look at what six counties are doing in northeast North Carolina.
The folks who put on a really good field day each year in one these counties aren’t looking to solve the problems of agricultural research, teaching and Extension at their land-grant institution.
Instead, they are looking to do something that actually helps farmers and agribusiness in their area. Politics don’t play much of a role — when it’s your year to host the Expo, you do it. And, you get a lot of help from your friends.
Isn’t that the way Extension and research are supposed to work?