The University of Illinois Extension is a familiar agency in our community, and the signs for field offices can be seen throughout Southern Illinois. But a look into what this incredible organization encompasses shows the importance of the Extension in our community’s health, happiness and success.
With outreach services provided to all counties in the state of Illinois, the Extension is crucial to a substantial group of Illinois residents with 4-H youth development, agriculture and natural Resources, community and economic development, and family and consumer services.
The five main areas of the Extension and its educational programs cover energy and environmental stewardship, youth development, family health and financial security, economic development, and food safety and security.
While the Extension offers in-person workshops, field days and lectures, the organization also has online, self-paced programs with webinar series on a multitude of topics. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this platform has been especially helpful to the community, offering online versions of regularly scheduled, annual courses, as well as new information specific to the pandemic.
Rather than canceling workshops related to relevant topics like gardening and landscaping, the Extension has implemented the use of Zoom technology to share information with a community that may be looking for assistance or distraction during a difficult time. The research-based programs, brought to Illinoisans by educated and experienced specialists, reach a wide and varied audience, from commercial farmers wanting to expand their operations to families looking to grow their own tomatoes.
Maggie Ray, who has worked as a local foods and small farm extension program coordinator since 2015, operates out of the Murphysboro field office to create and schedule programming on topics such as composting, native plants, beekeeping, and goat and sheep parasites.
By locating educators and connecting them with residents of Southern Illinois, Ray helps to provide information on topics related to growers and their small farm operations, as well as hobby gardeners and individuals looking to improve the appearance of their properties.
For instance, the goat and sheep parasite management workshop, which is free to the community — like all programs at the Extension — aids producers in conquering some of the most challenging aspects of small farm operations. With a focus on scientific topics such as parasite life cycles and nutritional interactions, the Extension does the challenging work of researching these advanced areas of farming, then relays that information to small farm owners in a way they can apply it to their practices.
“I think Extension is important in agriculture going back to how Extension started — getting that science-based information back into the community,” Ray said.
Growing up on a farm in rural Illinois, Ray understands the importance of creating programs on a variety of topics that will benefit farmers and gardeners. She is passionate about advancing relevant topics that are of interest to her as an Extension coordinator, such as weather pattern programs and fruit and vegetable canning, as well as working at the Murphysboro field office to research information on upcoming workshops. The Murphysboro location is home to a high tunnel, unheated greenhouse, which Ray manages. It provides space for research that can be shared during programs on gardening and small vegetable farms.
“We’re lucky that we have a large property where we can grow things and have different vegetable trials,” Ray said.
Zachary Grant, a local food systems and small farms extension educator in Cook County, works with small-scale farms to educate growers on all aspects of production and commerce. Small farms, which can range in size from several hundred square feet to 2 acres, veer away from a focus on major commodity crops like corn and soybeans and are a continually evolving component of the agriculture world.
With more than 20 years of experience focused on small farms research, Grant works to provide information on emerging trends such as micro greens, urban agriculture, and ginger and turmeric growing to keep programming relevant. His education and experience, both professionally and personally, provide a wealth of knowledge to the small farms of Illinois.
“A good percentage of our Extension staff either have in the past or are currently practicing the skill sets that they teach about. We attempt to be the intermediaries between research-based information and the growers who need it.” Grant said.
One of the annual events that Grant heads is the Small Farms Winter Webinar Series. Presented live in webinar format on Zoom, the series is held in the colder months at a time before the growing community gets busy in the spring. Teaching general skills on topics ranging from healthy soil and drip irrigation systems to digital marketing and purchasing hay, the series prepares small farm growers with the tools to succeed each year and provides that information digitally.
Although the University of Illinois Extension, an agency with agriculture at its core, is well-known for its in-person programming and hands-on learning, Grant realizes the importance of offering digital, continuously available information, especially with the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions on group gatherings.
Katie Bell, who recently joined the University of Illinois Extension as a local foods and small farms extension educator, is another staff member with a background in agriculture, and she parlays her childhood experience into her work with the community.
“I grew up on a small livestock farm in central Illinois. We raised sheep and goats, had a few cows. My grandmother always had a garden, so I’ve been in the agriculture scene my whole life,” Bell said.
Bell recently teamed up with Extension horticulturist Austin Little to create a webinar series titled Gardening 101. The free, six-part series aired two evenings per week throughout the month of April and touched on topics including site selection, soil, plant selection, plant nutrition, succession and companion planting, and harvesting. For those interested, the webinar series is also available to view at any time on the Extension’s YouTube channel. An already popular topic for many residents of Southern Illinois, the Gardening 101 webinar is especially helpful at a time when many residents are at home more than usual and looking for outdoor projects.
Through her work at the Extension, Bell not only helps create relevant programming for Southern Illinois, but also performs practical research that can be conveyed to registrants during workshops. For example, through her recent work with tomato trials, Bell worked to explore techniques that benefit growers working on small-scale farms that may sell at local farmers markets or growers operating on a larger scale.
“We take information on complicated and complex subjects and we try to bring it to a level that everyone can understand, because we want people to have access to healthy food and know where their food comes from,” Bell said.
Another esteemed educator with the Extension is Chris Evans, forestry and Extension research specialist, who operates out of the Dixon Springs Agricultural Center in Pope County. A lifelong enthusiast of all things outdoors with an education in wildlife and forestry, Evans covers several topics in his research and workshops.
“I’m a split position between Extension and research. On the Extension side of things, my job is to work with private land owners, agencies and organizations and help them with forestry and natural resource-related topics and education in those areas,” Evans said.
The three major areas in which Evans specializes are forest health, with a focus on invasive plants, insects and diseases; forest management, including instruction on thinning forests and adding prescribed fire; and agroforestry, with work integrating trees and forestry with agriculture.
Agroforestry, like all other areas of the Extension’s outreach, is backed by research to allow Evans to competently assist the farming community in new ventures. With demonstration units at his office location, Evans has been able to research important topics like alley cropping, which is integrating row crops in the same acreage as existing tree crops. His work with invasive species control has aided in the fight against the emerald ash borer and other pests that threaten trees. And, by assisting agencies such as the Illinois Department of Natural Resources with prescribed fire and management techniques, Evans helps keep the forests healthy and productive.
“The way I design my research, I want it to be very applied and it feed right into my Extension activities. Anything we try to do research-wise, we try to bring into programming,” Evans said.
Perhaps one of the most popular workshops that Evans teaches is the maple syrup course that takes place the first Saturday of February each year. A program designed to give participants the technique and information needed to produce maple syrup on their own, Evans is a perfect fit as the educator on board, with his forestry expertise and several years experience making maple syrup at home with his family. After a presentation and overview of the process, Evans spends the remainder of the program looking at trees, tapping trees, and exploring different systems used to get the sap out and boil it down.
“I like working with people. And I think that’s what drew me to Extension, is it really places an emphasis on science-based information and getting that good, sound technical knowledge to the public,” Evans said.
The educators and program coordinators at the University of Illinois Extension work together across the entire state and beyond to bring research-based information to residents of Illinois. Large-scale farmers, small-operation growers, gardeners, and people new to the world of agriculture and horticulture can trust the practical knowledge provided by the Extension to improve their business ventures and hobbies. The outreach that the Extension offers continues to improve and strengthen our communities during these unprecedented times, and will remain a trusted resource well into the future.
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