IFAS/County partnership a valuable resource for Marion County

The Marion County Board of County Commissioners declared Nov 17-24 Farm City Week during their Nov. 16 regularly scheduled meeting in recognition of the significant contributions agriculture brings to Marion County. Lynn Nobles, the director of the UF/IFAS Extension – Marion County accepted the proclamation certificate and, in her remarks, highlighted the collaboration between the county and the University of Florida in running the Marion County UF/IFAS Extension office.

Creating a lasting educational-governmental partnership that benefits local residents is part of the role extension offices play around the county.

The history of extension offices

In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Act, which established a system where federal support was provided and land was granted to post-secondary institutions, specifically those focused on agriculture and mechanical arts.

The land-grant institutions operate on three pillars: teaching, research, and extension.

Teaching and research are fairly self-explanatory foci: the universities are charged with providing instruction to their students as well as engaging in research, particularly in agriculture and related fields.

The final pillar, extension, is designed to extend the research being conducted by the land-grant universities from their labs to the fields and pastures of local farms in the region.

Non-land-grant institutions also focus on teaching and research, but they do not have the extension component, a fact the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) extension services website highlights.

“All universities engage in research and teaching, but the nation’s more than 100 land-grant colleges and universities have a third, critical mission — extension. Through extension, land-grant colleges and universities bring vital, practical information to agricultural producers, small business owners, consumers, families, and young people.”

Nobles echoed those sentiments in describing the role of extension in land-grant colleges.

“The land-grant universities collaborate with the counties to have the extension service come into the counties, and actually bring the information that the extension of…the research, the things that they were learning, and bring it to the counties for the people in the counties to be productive, and be able to do the best management practices in order to do a good job and to promote a culture of healthy living, healthy lifestyles, things like that. So, there’s an extremely good partnership between the county government and the University of Florida,” she said.

Today, the extension program is part of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which falls under the USDA.

The state of Florida has two land-grant institutions: Florida A&M University (FAMU) and the University of Florida.

The two universities are partners in the Florida Cooperative Extension Service, and FAMU operates extension offices in 18 counties in Florida while the University of Florida operates in all 67.

UF/IFAS

At the University of Florida, the extension is situated within the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) along with the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) as well as the Florida Agricultural Experiment Station. Additionally, it is known as the UF/IFAS Extension.

The UF/IFAS Extension includes thousands of scientists, educators, faculty members, volunteers, and administrative staff, all of whom work together to deliver solutions to the problems their local communities are facing.

The UF/IFAS, according to its website, is “a federal, state, and county partnership dedicated to developing knowledge in agriculture, human and natural resources, and the life sciences and to making that knowledge accessible to sustain and enhance the quality of human life.”

UF/IFAS – Marion County

Nobles says the Marion County UF/IFAS Extension office is working a bit under capacity due to COVID, but it is getting back to its full strength.

“We currently have eight agents, and we have two that we’re interviewing this month. We normally have 11 agents, but we were a little bit behind because of COVID.”

Each agent typically works in a specialized area, and they can use data-driven approaches when looking for solutions to problems.

“We have a food and nutrition agent that has just come aboard,” Nobles pointed out.

“She’s going to be doing heart-related health problems, diabetes [programs], different things like that. Nutrition, weight loss is a big problem in Marion County with diabetes and just people not eating the correct things that they should. So, she’s got some plans for doing programs there. She’s looked at a lot of data that’s come back from the different agencies within the county, and then, she’ll work with them to make sure that she gets to the different areas and to the people that need the education. She’s mapped out which zip codes actually have the highest number of deaths to nutritional disease and different things like that, so that she knows which areas should have which topics discussed.”

Extension agents are not only working to make Marion County healthier but are also working on ways to be both environmentally conscious and fiscally beneficial when addressing a wide range of situations.

“We’ve got a water resource agent who works with the Florida-Friendly Landscaping Program, which works with homeowners, different people like that, to try to put the right kinds of plants in their yards, in their landscapes that will take less water and require less chemicals and nutrients to better serve the community and be more environmentally friendly, and save the community members money,” Nobles said.

Agents work with local producers to come up with and implement best practices for long-term success in both plant and animal science.

“We have a sustainable agriculture agent that works with small farms and crop production,” Nobles explained.

“So, he would work with some sunflower producers…or citrus producers. He does a lot of work with sweet potatoes and passion fruit. He also does some entrepreneurship, talking to the producers about how they’re going to market their products, that kind of thing. Works with the farmer’s markets. And then, small animals like your goats, your sheep, hogs, any of those kinds of projects, or any of those kinds of producers.”

The Marion County UF/IFAS Extension office has an agent dedicated to larger animals as well.

“We have our livestock agent, and she works with horses and cattle,” Nobles stated. “And all her programming is on, you know, maybe pasture management, health issues, different things that are affecting the industry.”

In addition to programs designed around improving the health and environmental conditions of North Central Florida, Nobles says they make sure to incorporate programs for children too.

“We also have two 4-H agents that work with the youth development and do all the youth fair activities, judging teams, leadership, citizenship, community service, giving back to the community, things like that. They work to develop the kids’ personalities and make them good, productive citizens.”

While programs such as 4-H cater to children, programs like the Master Gardener Program cater to a wide variety of individuals, and they not only provide a service but can also quantify just how valuable they are.

“I just went to their banquet last week, and we actually had a Master Gardener that had 30 years of service. And they recognized her and the thousands of hours of service that each one of them puts in. In a year’s time, they can easily get close to $400,000 worth of actual labor they put in, actual man-hours.”

Nobles said the Marion County UF/IFAS Extension office is available for all Marion County residents, and if they are interested, they simply need to reach out.

“Our facilities, the programs that we put out, predominantly are free. Or, if there’s a charge, it’s just basically for whatever material items that you might need or whatnot. But as far as making money, we don’t make money on our programs. The programs are there for educational purposes for the students,” she pointed out.

The Marion County UF/IFAS Extension office doesn’t operate in a vacuum, as it relies on partnerships in order to be successful, and Nobles said the partnership with the MCBOCC is especially beneficial.

“There’s a really good relationship between our county administrators and county commissioners and the University of Florida as far as working together for a common goal or common good,” she said.

For more information on the Marion County UF/IFAS Extension office, visit https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/marion/, or visit their office located at 2232 NE Jacksonville Road, Ocala, FL 34470.

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