More people want to eat food grown locally. More people are seeing opportunities in starting small farms that produce vegetables and fruits for local markets.
There is just one problem with that picture says Dr. Paul Mask with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.
“Many of the people who are starting these farms have no background in agriculture,” says Mask, who serves as Extension’s assistant director for agriculture and natural resources.
He notes that Extension professionals working in horticulture are experiencing a surge in demand for programs ranging from organic production techniques to integrated pest management strategies to new growing methods such as high tunnel production.
“I think there is a correlation between the interest in small farming operations and the increased demand for our Extension programming,” Mask says.
Mask says several new programs are great illustrations of how Extension is reaching new audiences with information they need to succeed in their businesses.
One is Farmer 101, a 2013 program effort led by Cullman County coordinator Tony Glover.
“Phone calls can be a good indicator of interest,” says Glover. “But I wanted to make sure that the need for the program was there before we developed an eight-week curriculum.
Not only did a survey reveal a clear demand for a beginning farmer program, it showed that people were willing to travel up to an hour or more one way to attend.
Glover created a curriculum and enlisted fellow Extension professionals and others in agriculture to teach the series.
“I was hoping to get 15 participants, but we had 45 people sign up,” he says. “More people wanted to take the class but we had to limit it to 45 because of meeting space size.”
Mask also notes that new farmers and veteran producers recognize that the Extension Commercial Horticulture team is a valuable resource.
Mike Reeves, a regional agent on the Commercial Horticulture team, says the team began getting lots of calls about how to manage production in high tunnel houses as well as greenhouses.
“We were suddenly getting lots of questions and requests for help from folks who had decided to try their hand at these production methods,” Reeves said.
High tunnel houses can be a relatively inexpensive and effective means to extend the season by protecting high-value crops from marginal low temperatures, adverse weather as well as some insect and disease issues. But Reeves notes that they can be a recipe for disaster if producers do not understand the basics of construction, planting and management.
Almost 100 people attended a comprehensive 5 hour workshop on high tunnel production taught by the Commercial Horticulture team in North Alabama. Participants represented nine Alabama counties and two Tennessee counties. Some participants traveled more than two hours to take part in the class.
Team leader Dr. Ayanava Majumdar says while many of the participants already had purchased high tunnels, more than 70 percent had no training in high tunnel production.
“It’s clear that we really met a huge need with this training,” says Majumdar. “Most of these people had never been to an Extension training. Almost half of them learned about the meeting through Facebook.”
Brenda Bagwell of Geraldine in Dekalb County says Extension’s high tunnel workshop is just what she needed. Bagwell is growing her first cop of tomatoes in her new high tunnel house.
“I am starting from scratch,” says Bagwell. “Extension meetings provide me with the information I need.” She adds that because she finds the information so useful, she is willing to travel up to two hours away from home to attend.
Bagwell and her son, Scott, attended the Fruit and Vegetable Grower’s Conference earlier this year. They attended sessions targeted at new farmers, learning more about equipment options, marketing, tax issues and web resources for new farmers.
Dawn Massey and her husband also attended the Fruit and Vegetable Growers Conference.
“For me, I really enjoy the interactive classes,” says Massey. “The tomato grafting class was hands on and fun.”
Interactive and hands-on activities are key elements of many Alabama Extension programs and workshops.
Extension director Dr. Gary Lemme says these successes emphasize a belief he has long held.
“We have a large unreached audience that needs what Extension offers,” ” says Lemme. “Our Extension professionals are looking at new ways to deliver programs that allow the most people to access them. Extension professionals are also using social media outlets to not only spread the word about meetings but to actively respond to clients’ questions.”
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