Candid Conversation with Dean Nancy Cox

From Kentucky Farm Bureau News

KFB Candid Conversation presents a discussion about the topical issues facing the agricultural industry in a question and answer format with a member of the agricultural community. In this column, the issue of agricultural research and extension are discussed with Dean Nancy Cox of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment.

In your estimation, what is the value of research to the agricultural industry?

Since the time land grant universities were created, we have gone from one farmer feeding four or five people to one farmer feeding four or five people to one farmer feeding 150 or more people in this country, and much of that is because of the advances research created. Whether it is in fertilizers, crop management systems, variety development or precision agriculture; you name it, and it came out of ag research. The productivity has been amazing.

What is an example of how funding affects this kind of research?

If you look at some of the recent U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service reports, the progress in improving productivity is slowing down and federal funding for ag research has been flat for 20 years. There are two major ways the universities get funding from the USDA; one is through competitive grants, and one is through partnerships with the states, termed capacity funds, which is critical in doing what a state needs. Those funds are precious to us, because they let us invest in infrastructure over the log haul. For instance, if you need to study disease in cattle, you can't just always buy the cattle you need, you have to have a herd you can use over the long term and whose history you know. In this longer term type of research, you have to make sure you have the farms, the animals, and the cropping systems needed to mobilize quickly. We depend on this USDA capacity funding, as well as state funding. A couple of specific examples include the cases of the Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome and the problem we had the soybean rust a few years ago. Faced with these dire and immediate situations, we didn't have the luxury of time to write a grant, and our stakeholders benefited from our ability to mobilize rapidly. If there's a problem in Kentucky, we'll find a way to work on it. To mobilize quickly, we have to have those capacity funds from the federal government. This funding is part of the Farm Bill, and we depend on it to serve our traditional programs as well as new ones.

What kinds of programs are available, that are really important to agriculture, that this funding helps?

There are programs in animal health and forages, and we're really seeing emerging water management issues that we need to address. Kentucky Farm Bureau has led our state to take a leap forward in that area. There is the Young Farmer and Rancher program that has enabled a new set of farmers to get into the business, and we put a lot into that. Programs of critical importance to Kentucky's families are the Expanded Food and Nutrition Program and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program's educational arm. And these are just a few of the important programs.

With a new budget proposal on the table in Washington and a Farm Bill coming, what are your hopes for research and extension?

With the high level budget that has been released by the President, there are some substantial cuts to the programs that we depend on for our research, and we're waiting to see what Congress does with those numbers. We have really benefited for many years from our Congressional members recognizing the value of research to the nation and each state. We hope we can inspire the confidence of the legislators as we move forward.

What would you say to the general public, who has little knowledge of agriculture, about the need for research?

This research affects what the consumer pays for food. It also affects whether their food is safe; people want to know their food is safe for their children. Research helps to preserve wildlife, the environment and recreational uses of our lands. And they like to see our farmland. Our beautiful Kentucky farmland is preserved, because our farming enterprises take such good care of the land. Aside from ag production, we have programs to help those less fortunate learn how to eat in a healthier way. We have students who partner with researchers and go out into the community to visit and cook meals for senior citizens. Students, the third pillar of our land grant mission, are one of the big beneficiaries, because they are exposed to our knowledgeable faculty. Because of that, they will become better citizens. There are many ways in which the research here touches the consumer every day.

Is it a fair statement to say Kentucky is a leader in research because of the network of universities and agriculture organizations working together to make the industry better?

Any ag dean in Kentucky is very lucky. I can't imagine a better situation as far as all of the valued partnerships we have. Kentucky Farm Bureau is certainly a leader; it's progressive and connected across the state, and it is not overstating the case to say that someone from UK works with someone from KFB every day. The same goes for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. Other agencies we talk to a lot are the Division of Water and the State Veterinarian's  Office. We also work hand-in-hand with all the commodity groups for crops, animals and forestry. We have such good legislators who support agriculture at both the state and federal levels. And there are all the other universities that have agriculture programs; we don't all talk to each other, and there's a lot of cooperation rather than competitiveness. There is a thread of cooperation and growth that runs through the leadership of Kentucky agriculture, and I'm very grateful to be in this job.

Where does the Extension fit in with all the research that is done at UK?

In everything I've said about research, it has taken Cooperative Extension to get that information out there, and we have a good reputation for services and innovation in each of our counties. I am so grateful fir the 100-plus years of extension and of Kentucky's excellent agents. There are so many programs these agents put on. We certainly work hard to increase the ag economy, but in extension we also want to increase the ability of people to start a new business or maybe manage their finances better or to geed their children better. So we're not just about ag production, we're about quality of life and helping families through initiatives like our strong Family and Consumer Science programs. A county extension program is designed, somewhat, to do what its county needs it to do most, and we have many transformative stories to tell from all across Kentucky. Extension also serves as a bridge between the agriculture industry and those who don't come from a farming background. Think about how many 4-H'ers don't come from a farm. We have a treasure trove of things to share with all of our citizens.