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Where Is Kentucky Agriculture Heading?

Upon the retirement of C. Oran Little, M. Scott Smith became the eighth dean of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture in January of 2001. He also serves as director of the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station. As dean, he is responsible for all facets of the college—teaching, extension, and research programs. I met with Smith in his office on a blustery late-March afternoon to discuss the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for the UK College of Agriculture.
—Editor's Note

W hen many people think of agriculture in Kentucky in the context of its future viability, they think naturally of tobacco. What is the future of tobacco in our state?

I believe that any discussion of the future of tobacco in Kentucky has to be taken up at the same time as issues of the family farm and of how we use our resources. Dramatic changes in tobacco production and marketing have combined with the broader forces on agriculture worldwide to create substantial challenges for our family farms and our communities dependent on a strong agricultural economy. The consolidation of agriculture in the state, the increase in farm size and the decrease in the number of farms all have to do with the future of tobacco. We have a huge responsibility in the College of Ag to try to contribute to a healthy resolution to these changes by, for instance, working with farmers on agricultural diversification—new crops that would reduce their reliance on growing tobacco. And this is especially important for small family farms.

Photo of Scott Smith in field with cowsIn his travels around Kentucky, Scott Smith says he's pleased by the variety of ways people are tied to the College of Ag and the university—
through 4-H, homemakers organizations, farm leadership organizations, and alumni groups.

Is the family farm disappearing in Kentucky?

Not as fast as some people might think. We have lost approximately 1,000 of 90,000 farms in Kentucky over the last year. Most of these were of the smaller variety—a couple hundred acres or less. It's almost as if we have two farming populations in this state: a small number of large, globally competitive farms, and a large number of small family farms that usually involve off-farm employment and part-time work since their total sales often aren't enough to provide full support for a family. But that's not to say these farms are less important than big farms; in many ways they're more important in terms of how local communities and economies are affected.

What would you tell a farmer who's having trouble making ends meet on a smaller farm or who wants to expand and become a full-time farmer?

Most small farmers either don't have capital to expand their operations or they're perfectly satisfied being a small farmer. If someone aspires to be among the six percent of large, globally competitive farms in the state, the technology and advice are available. Small farms sometimes are an economically viable choice; sometimes they have more to do with a choice about way of life than about economics. To provide increased income, small farmers need to look for special opportunities for new products and new farm sales, and there are lots of things they can do. Fresh-water shrimp, fruits and vegetables, organic produce or agricultural tourism. Though none of these alone will replace the tobacco crop, there are comparable opportunities.

What other immediate challenges does the College of Agriculture face?

Another major challenge comes from the recent reform of higher education—the mandate to become a top-20 research institution. The expectations are to elevate research productivity and research impact, which is consistent with what we do in the College of Agriculture. A research university is committed to discovery but also to transferring discoveries to practical use. The UK College of Agriculture, as a land-grant system, has always been about this.

But haven't the expectations of the college changed significantly in the last few years or so?

Absolutely. The charge that the College of Ag has to respond to is more complicated than ever. Agriculture itself, the mission of higher education in public institutions, and undergraduate education are all more complicated. And we have to mesh together everything we're supposed to do—research, teaching, and service.

What about support for your mission at the county level?

Local support is a tremendous resource for the College of Agriculture. Much of what we do in our 120 county offices is supported only by local resources. One of the unique things about the College of Ag that a lot of people don't understand is our relationship with the cooperative extension service and what that means. The emphasis here is on the word "cooperative"—programs funded by county, state and federal sources. We regard extension as a great model and so does our new president Lee Todd, because it delivers the benefits of higher education to local economies.

How do various locales around the state let you know what their agricultural needs are?

We're very much a grassroots organization. Our sense of direction is gathered from councils in every county, and much of what I do as dean is outside of Lexington. In fact, our programs in the College of Ag are sometimes more visible and better known in Western Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky than in Lexington.

Isn't it a challenge for the college to work in such geographically diverse areas?

Kentucky is a great state to work in for somebody in my position exactly because it is so diverse—economically and culturally and geographically—which makes our challenge greater but also more interesting. The issues we face in Pike County or Bell County are completely different than most of the issues we face in Daviess County. It's been interesting as I've traveled around Kentucky to see how the land-grant system has adapted itself to different needs of various areas in the state.

What do you most like to hear from Kentuckians when you travel around the state?

The greatest thing to hear is the tremendous variety of ways that people are tied to the College of Ag and the university. Many of those ties are through extension—4-H, homemakers organizations, farm leadership organizations, alumni groups. There's such a wide range of ways through its extension program that the College of Ag has touched the lives of people.

I understand that your father was an extension agent. Are you following in your father's footsteps?

In a way I guess I am. I was born into the extension land-grant system—my father was a county agent in New York before I was born, and he became a county agent in his home county in New Hampshire right after I was born. Then he went back to school—Cornell College of Ag—and was an extension specialist for the next 30 years, working with county agents on farm finance issues.

As a kid, did you sometimes go with your father when he traveled in New York?

[Laughter]. Oh yes. I had two extension functions when I was extremely young. When I was around five, I would help him collate and put together extension materials in his office. In the summertime I was allowed to tag along when he met with county agents and at farmer meetings. So this has always been a way of life for me.

Jeff Worley