Got Extension Agents? Leaders in the field, Clemson’s agents are helping educate tomorrow’s farmers and gardeners
A cattle call in Hollywood is very different from one in Kershaw County. When Cathy Taylor is looking for help, she calls Brian Beer, whose talents have nothing to do with tights and tap shoes and everything to do with cows and calves.
“I have him on my speed dial, my computer and Facebook,” Taylor said.
Beer is a Clemson University Extension agent in Chester and Lancaster counties, but he goes where he is needed. He specializes in livestock and pasture management.
“If it hadn’t been for Brian, I would not be in the grass-fed beef business now,” said Taylor, owner of Seldom Rest Farm. “He put me on the pathway. He helped me set up controlled grazing and advised me about buying cows — ‘black cows across the board.’ ”
Next spring, Taylor is looking to have 13 calves ready for sale at her farm. For Taylor, that’s a big step forward. Two years ago, she was just starting the Clemson Extension New and Beginning Farmers program, which teaches business basics and shows what it takes to run a farm.
Bringing the University to the people
People like Cathy Taylor are getting back to the land, or at least to their backyards, where they are reconnecting with growing things — vegetables, fruits, cattle, timber, flowers, shrubs, even families and local economies.
Today, more than 124 agents with the Clemson Extension Service provide sound, scientifically based information to South Carolinians and help them use that information to improve the quality of their lives. Eight Extension program teams cover
- agronomic crops,
- food safety and nutrition,
- forestry and natural resources,
- youth development and families,
- livestock and forages,
- water resources and
- economic and community development.
When Taylor took over her stepfather’s horse farm, the place needed work. The fences were old; they would not have kept a cow in, unless the cow wanted to be there. Not that there was much reason to stay on the 200 acres. They had been picked over by quarter horses that ate the grass and left the weeds as they grazed. Wanting to turn the farm into a business meant having a management plan for the pastures as well as the business office.
“Brian showed me that by breaking it up into four smaller pastures, it would mean that the livestock would have to eat everything, not just the good parts. By rotating the grazing and moving the cows, I let the eaten part rest and recover,” Taylor said.
Extension is nearly 100 years old. When someone says, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” the line often prompts a laugh nowadays, but nearly a century ago those words were no laughing matter to discouraged farm families working soil as worn out as the people who tilled it. In 1914, Congress launched a grand plan to help farmers, increase food output and diminish the drudgery of domestic life. It was called the Smith-Lever Act. Today, as then, the Cooperative Extension Service reaches out to improve the lives and livelihoods of rural Americans.
Co-sponsor of the act, Asbury Francis Lever, is buried on Clemson University’s Cemetery Hill. He served in Congress from 1901 to 1919 and envisioned the Cooperative Extension System as a science-based practical program to improve agricultural conditions by using the research and methods developed at the nation’s land-grant universities. The diffusion of new knowledge “…which if made available to the farmers of this country and used by them, would work a complete and absolute revolution in the social, economic and financial condition of our rural population,” Lever stated for the Congressional Record in 1914.
Lever’s vision lives on as Extension agents continue to help rural communities meet contemporary challenges ranging from finding new ways to generate farm income to dealing with stormwater pollution. Agents may not travel by train as they did in times past, but they do reach out, often traveling via the information highway of the digital age.
“I like to work with growers, giving them a better chance to make money,” said Jonathan Croft in Dorchester County, an agent specializing in commodity row crops — corn, cotton, soybeans and peanuts. Much of his work is done using his smartphone. “Growers send me photos, and I email them a lot. I keep the phone on nearly all the time. Staying in touch and being available is really important. This is not an 8 to 4:30 job.”
Agent Blake Lanford tends the tourism and economic development fields. Working out of the Horry County office, he shows farmers that agrotourism — everything from Farm to School classes to corn mazes — can supplement and diversify farm incomes. For coastal communities, which he also covers, there are challenges of riding a rollercoaster economy. Lanford develops business and marketing plans, revitalizing downtowns to draw visitors and new residents with a mix of historic preservation and popular consumer attractions.
“Conway was an old tobacco town that then handled the spillover from Myrtle Beach, but everybody from downtown businesses to muscadine growers is responding to consumer demands and adjusting rapidly and successfully to meet them. I think that Conway is demonstrating how to create new businesses and preserve the things of the past that mean so much to us.”
Clean water for everyone
For Mary Nevins in Sumter County, preserving things means taking care of the environment, particularly water quality. She works with Carolina Clear, which helps communities deal with stormwater runoff that can carry pollutants into rivers and streams. Nevins holds rain-barrel-making workshops that show how to capture roof water, using the water for irrigation. She has a tabletop model that she pours water over to demonstrate how stormwater flows off hard surfaces, then explains the need to slow the runoff into sewers.
“I present information that people don’t want to hear in a way so they will understand the importance,” she said. “Nobody wants to hear about pet waste or fertilizer disposal, but they don’t know that everyday activities can cause water pollution, and the job is to make people aware. I’ve always had a passion for the environment, and I enjoy the challenge of showing how daily actions can make a difference.”
The agent in the city
Greenville is a place aptly named. The Upstate city is green in many ways, ranging from environmentally friendly industries to fresh markets running from downtown to Swamp Rabbit Trail. It’s home to the ornamental poinsettia and residents with a passion for plants. Agent Cory Tanner heads up the Master Gardener program in Greenville, leading classes and organizing volunteers.
“It’s fun work engaging these people who are very passionate to learn about gardening,” he said. “Reaching and teaching and seeing how people take to it is very rewarding and fulfilling. Vegetable gardening has gone through a resurgence, and it’s really something when people see what happens when they put a seed in the ground.”
Tanner’s horticulture education is put to the test nearly every day. “People call with problems — plant pests, diseased plants, strange plants, you name it — and I get to figure out what the answer is using science and the plant professionals at Clemson.”
4-H takes root in corn and tomato clubs
Demonstration — showing instead of telling — is the hallmark of Extension’s outreach. From its turn-of-the-century beginnings to the present, agents have held “field days” to show farmers how new knowledge from universities can be put to profitable use. In the home, women and children learned about food safety. Extension officials started first with the youngsters, believing rightly that if the children got involved their parents would become interested. Corn clubs for the boys in the Midwest became the model for other programs. In the South, girls’ canning clubs began in Aiken.
A USDA representative holding a meeting at a rural school in Aiken in 1910 sparked an idea. Teacher Marie Cromer was so motivated by the talk about boys’ clubs, she set out to plan a club for girls. Girls joining the club would commit to growing a one-tenth acre of tomatoes. USDA officials and a local women’s college were so taken with the project that they supported it. The girls were able to put together a portable canning outfit to preserve their tomatoes. Corn and tomato clubs were the seeds of today’s 4-H clubs supported by Extension.
“I was a 4-H-er in Marion,” said Deon Legette, county agent for food safety and nutrition and lead agent for 4-H in Kershaw County. “Extension was a big part of my life growing up. My dad was a schoolteacher and part-time vegetable farmer in Marion County, and Bill Jones, the local agent, spent a lot of time at our place. He helped my dad set up a black-plastic irrigation system. He was like one of the family.”
Extension made a lifelong impression on Legette. “I experienced what it meant to farmers and families, and I wanted to be a county agent.” Jones was there to help, offering advice about her college studies and seeing that her application for an Extension job was in the right place at the right time.
“I started in Lexington working in family life education and clothing and textiles with Extension clothing specialist Judy Klein. We set up a program with volunteers to teach sewing to children,” Legette said. “They learned to make garments and got to see what skills it would take to start a sewing business.”
Financial resource management was another program where Legette helped young families learn how to save for buying a house, manage expenses and shop smart.
In 2004, she transferred to Kershaw and continued her work with families. She grew more involved in 4-H and food safety, becoming a ServSafe trainer to teach food-service employees about safe food handling and hygiene. Lately, a revival in home canning has Legette and other food safety and nutrition agents holding demonstrations and classes across the state.
Along with canning classes, Clemson University Extension Service ran a total of 8,490 programs and activities — 3,272 federally funded — in 2010-11 throughout the state’s 46 counties. Extension programs reached more than 80,000 South Carolinians, and nearly all report significant learning during the programs.
Lifelong learning is a key to unlocking the challenges South Carolinians face today. Having research-based resources and expertise available are powerful tools. Whether it’s starting a farm-based business, learning about food safety and nutrition, growing gardens, safeguarding the environment or simply wanting to can tomatoes, squash and pickles, Extension agents are ready to help.
Cathy Taylor knows how much difference Extension can make in building a better life beyond the city limits. For her, know-how was just a cattle call away.