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Alabama Cooperative Extension System translates research into practical life skills

One of the areas the Alabama Cooperative Extension System works in is poultry production. Here, from left, are Jess Campbell, Extension specialist with the National Poultry Technology Center; Jim Branche with Daviston’s King Trail Farms; and Jeremiah Davis, director of the National Poultry Technology Center.

Want to learn how to raise chickens, plant a garden, eat healthier or fly a drone to survey your land? Or maybe you just want to know how to pack potato salad for the cookout without making your guests sick.

If you do, the (ACES) could have the answers you are looking for.

“We fill an educational role much like a K-12 school system would, but it’s providing a lot of information having to do with environmental issues and with all sorts of things that people deal with in their lives every day, from proper eating habits to the environment to even an interest in space sciences,” says ACES Director J. Mike Phillips.

ACES is a partnership between two public land-grant universities, and in Huntsville, and is part of the under the U.S. Department of Agriculture. ACES divides duties between the two institutions, with Auburn managing research and programming for rural communities and Alabama A&M focusing on urban and suburban communities.

Some of the organization’s more familiar services include the 4-H programs for urban and rural youngsters, food safety classes and the county extension agents who can answer questions from the public about gardening and landscaping.

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ACES, in fact, supports research and positions extension agents in all 67 counties in the state. “We have extension agents who go out to homes and help individuals with gardens, and we assist a lot of community gardens,” says ACES Associate Director Jennifer Wells-Marshall at Alabama A&M. “We also help people identify pests, and we do pest management as well.”

In ACES, researchers at Auburn and Alabama A&M conduct studies in areas such as agriculture, the environment, and family and consumer sciences. ACES then passes on that knowledge through extension agents to people — from farmers and ranchers to city slickers — through classes, workshops and other outreach programs. The goal is to help people enhance their own work and economic well-being, health, homes and lifestyle.

ACES’s budget in FY 2022 was $67.6 million, which included federal, state and county appropriations and grants and contracts, according to the agency’s annual report.

With that budget, ACES is supporting research at Auburn University, for example, that is helping restore depleted oyster reefs along Alabama’s Gulf Coast.

J. Mike Phillips, Alabama Cooperative Extension System director.

“We have a couple of specialists located there and they work with the various state and federal partners to do not only educational outreach but also addressing the research priorities to help that industry from year to year,” Phillips says.

ACES partners with several state agencies and nonprofits such as the Alabama Department of Agriculture, the Alabama Forestry Association and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for various research projects.

One such project is the Alabama Drought Reach (ADR) program that the Auburn University Water Resources Center and the Alabama Office of the State Climatologist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville developed.

Extension staffers and the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station at Auburn are collaborating to gather data regarding drought conditions in Alabama and build awareness about the impact that drought is having on agriculture across the state.

ACES is also helping farmers mitigate the drought conditions with assistance from the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“For beef cattle producers, there likely will be a hay shortage in the coming winter. So, our beef and forage team has been instrumental in identifying sources for hay in other states to bring here to help these producers out through the winter months,” Phillips says.

Besides research, ACES maintains teams of educators or extension agents who work with academic departments to develop educational classes and workshops to show farmers, ranchers and others how to apply the latest research to their own farms and communities.

Extension agents offer instruction on topics ranging from basic farming, seed conditioning, beef systems, foraging, scheduling irrigation, methods for preserving soil moisture, and even flying drones to apply spot treatments of herbicides over crops, Phillips says.

The Alabama Extension at Auburn also oversees the 4-H programs that give children and teens hands-on experience with gardening and livestock management.

Another program is the Alabama Master Naturalist program out of Auburn University where anyone who lives or works in Alabama can train to become a master naturalist and qualify to teach others about Alabama’s environment.

ACES also administers the Master Gardeners program, a popular course that has existed for more than 40 years, which trains individuals in horticulture and pest-control methods.

“There are a lot of adults in the state that have been affiliated with master gardeners. They have plant sales, and they do a lot of community service projects associated with gardens. It’s one of our long-term benchmark programs that’s been hugely successful,” Phillips says.

ACES in Auburn also manages the Forest Business Resources Program that teaches private landowners how to produce income from timber and non-timber products and understand the markets.

ACES recently launched a new initiative to assist farmers experiencing mental health struggles. The program lets farmers contact their local county extension office for information and for lists of available mental health counselors.

In its home sciences division, ACES offers the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) that teaches nutrition education to underserved, rural area adults and children and helps them apply what they learn.

Meanwhile, the urban division of Alabama Extension maintains teams of extension agents whose mission is to share with the public research from Alabama A&M University on health, nutrition, urban agriculture, the environment and youth development.

From that research, they create evidence-based programs like 4-H Youth Development, which, among other things, instructs youngsters on healthy living habits and introduces them to the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

“We’re in every discipline. The only difference is our focus is going to be on urban affairs in urban audiences,” she says.

In fact, Wells-Marshall oversees Alabama Extension in nine urban centers across the state, which includes Anniston, Birmingham, Decatur, Dothan, Florence, Huntsville, Mobile, Montgomery and Tuscaloosa and serves more than 27 counties in those regions.

One A&M program targets seniors, presenting them with activities like bird watching, birdhouse building, gardening and landscaping, Wells-Marshall says.

“We’re helping seniors to be more in tune with the environment, and it’s a way to help keep them active mentally and physically,” she says.

Another popular Alabama Extension urban initiative is the Community Health, Aerobic Motivational Program Initiating Optimal Nutrition program, or CHAMPION.

“CHAMPION is a series of lessons designed to help participants make better food choices and adopt physical activity,” Wells-Marshall says.

“The physical activity component is based on what people have access to in urban areas. So, we may focus on going to neighborhood parks and exercises that people can do in small spaces like riding a stationary bike,” she says.

Extension agents with CHAMPION include registered dietitians who teach skills such as mastering nutrition terminology, interpreting food labels and managing chronic health conditions like diabetes, she says.

Alabama Extension at Alabama A&M also operates several mobile units that visit communities to teach nutrition and water conservation and visit schools so students can participate in hands-on STEM experiments.

In addition, Alabama Extension’s urban division administers a workforce development program called Career Countdown.

“Career Countdown helps young people identify a career interest and see what’s available in the current job market in the area where they live, as well as in areas they may want to move to,” Wells-Marshall says.

“It also helps them create and navigate a path to the type of career they want to have whether that’s through the military, a two-year degree, a four-year degree or a post-graduate degree,” she says.

As Alabama Extension continues to evolve over the years, the agency promises to continue bringing cutting-edge discoveries and new technologies to both rural and urban communities, Phillips says.

He points to the new telehealth station that ACES rolled out last March in rural Chambers County to make it easier for residents to access healthcare.

“Technology changes are going to be a challenge for all of us,” says Phillips, “but we’ve got to move along with those technology changes and address the needs of all of our citizens out there in the state the best we know how.”

Gail Allyn Short is a Birmingham-based freelance contributor to Business Alabama.

This article appears in the April 2024 issue of Business Alabama.