The Torch Passes
Given the responsibility and authority of the dean's position at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, some half-jokingly consider the post to be the farming community's papacy.
The dean doesn't just have to make the academic trains run on time. He serves on various state commissions and directs the Cooperative Extension Service.
So it was a big deal when Oran Little announced he will retire September 30 after approximately 12 years of service as dean.
Unlike the Catholic pope, the dean doesn't get to proclaim himself infallible, indulging the critics as well as admirers.
"Overall, as a small sustainable organic farmer, I'd give him a C," said Martin Richards, a grower in Mercer County and past president of the Community Farm Alliance.
Richards complained the extension service under Little has been slow to pioneer organic and alternative farming.
"It used to be if I had a problem with a pest, the recommendation [from the extension office] was some sort of chemical," Richards recalled.
Richards noted the extension service in recent years has worked to beef up its expertise in these fields, but the work is still developing and information has yet to be widely distributed.
The next dean should be more aggressive in those areas, Richards stated.
"Too often in Kentucky, we're looking for other states to set the example," Richards said, referring to North Carolina as one state that many cite as a leader in diversifying agriculture.
"Let's be the ones on the cutting edge," he said.
Under Little's leadership, the college made great strides in other types of research and investments in facilities, including an animal research center and a plant science building. Responding to criticism that the school is too wedded to tobacco, Little points out that there are still many farmers growing the crop even after all the recent troubles.
Richards acknowledged tobacco and cattle are major parts of Kentucky's agriculture and the kind of farming he pursues doesn't come close. But that could change, he said.
"Land grant universities historically have been geared toward production, production, production," Richards said. "[We] need to remember the quality of crops and scale of production."
Richards groups his ideas for agriculture under the rubric of "sustainable agriculture," a phrase he readily admits has been overused and occasionally misapplied.
"Sustainable agriculture means sustainability for economics, the environment, and the community," he said. "It means living in balance with the world, both natural and economic - not dominating them."
Instead of urging more and more production, UK could assist farmers with being smarter with processing and selling their crops.
"Instead of growing tomatoes, farmers need to be growing ketchup," Richards observed.
Neil Hoffman, an Owsley County farmer, couldn't agree more.
"One criticism of UK among farmers is that [the college] is very good about teaching how to grow, but on the state level, Kentucky has fallen flat on marketing," Hoffman said.
Hoffman said he used to grow bell peppers for Campbell's Soup until the processor left the state. The state needs to pursue and retain those types of companies as aggressively as it would a Toyota plant, he pointed out.
Little mentioned achieving a "sustainable agriculture," but without defining it.
Little agreed with Richards that UK needs to help farmers with marketing and retaining agricultural retail dollars in the state.
But, as Little discussed genetically modified plants and finding ways to manage large-scale hog farms, it's unlikely the two are ideological twins.
Little said the state is challenged by the terrible plight of tobacco farmers who have suffered dramatic quota cuts. He said there are opportunities to improve that situation, noting the millions of dollars from the tobacco settlement to be invested in creating a new rural economy.
The college has a role by preparing students for those opportunities, Little said.
Little acknowledged some have reservations about all the science conducted by the school.
"I think generally people get uncomfortable in the midst of change," Little said. "But we need to make those changes to be stronger tomorrow than yesterday."
Research can yield answers to problems that seem insurmountable today, he said.
For example, Little suggested if the animal research center had been operating 10 years earlier, it might have developed solutions to the problems cited by opponents today to large hog farms.
Little speculated a method could be developed to use hog waste as a fertilizer rather than allow it to build up to dangerous levels in lagoons.
The next dean at UK will inherit these debates and others.
But like a good pope, Little is credited with leaving his institution a little stronger than when he came to it.
David Beck, the executive vice president of the Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation, credits Little with using his office to communicate the importance of agriculture to the rest of the state.
"Dean Little put numbers and ideas to the picture," Beck noted. "He showed how if you improve cattle or dairy production, that's worth a Toyota plant. He helped make people realize agriculture is important to the overall economy."
Beck also said Little brought greater unity to farm agencies across the state, especially among the other state universities with agriculture programs.
"There's always competition for money and Little brought a willingness among the schools to work together," Beck said.
"[Little] said, 'It's more important we work together for what's right for agriculture than worry what color our tennis shoes are.'...We all play on the same team," Beck quoted the dean.
UK is in the early stages of assembling a selection committee to find Little's successor. Now, does anyone know a potential ag pope who can coach the full-court press?
Alex De Grand can be reached at 225-4889 or firstname.lastname@example.org
If you need to be told all this, maybe you should just go ahead and stuff your face with those bloated corpses. The herd needs thinning.
Someone Spilled Booze On This Landmark (Slurp)
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