Home > Featured Articles > Get to know your Extension agent

Get to know your Extension agent

We asked five questions of five University Extension program educators about their jobs. Thanks to Tanner Delvalle, Horticulture Extension Educator, Penn State Extension; Jared A. Hoyle, PhD, Assistant Professor and Extension Turfgrass Specialist, Kansas State; Bill Kreuser, Assistant Professor and Extension Turfgrass Specialist, University of Nebraska-Lincoln; David McCall, Assistant Professor, Virginia Tech; Jay McCurdy, Assistant Professor and Turfgrass Extension Specialist, Mississippi State University; and James Murphy, PhD, Extension Specialist, Turfgrass Management, Rutgers University.

How can turf managers best take advantage of your Extension program?

Kreuser: There are several ways to engage in our Extension programs. Local turfgrass managers can attend Summer Field Day or the Nebraska Turf Conference each year. We also do site visits for managers around Nebraska. We try to use the Internet to expand our reach globally. We maintain a website, turf.unl.edu, with resources and research summaries. We also write weekly “Turf iNfo” articles about pertinent topics in turf management. Managers can sign up to receive these in their email automatically on our website or by becoming members of the Nebraska Turfgrass association. We use social media, mainly Twitter and YouTube, to disseminate our extension content. The goal for my Twitter account is to bring the current research and ideas to turf managers. It is also a great way to start dialogs about controversial topics or ideas in turfgrass management.

Hoyle: The K-State Turfgrass Extension Program uses many traditional and non-traditional techniques. We have many publications on the K-State Research and Extension Bookstore and K-State Turfgrass Information Pages that helps homeowners as well as turfgrass professionals. During the past couple years we have increased our digital presence. We have developed a new website (k-state.edu/turf) and blog (blogs.ksu.edu/turf), increased our reach on social media presence (@KSUTurf, facebook.com/KSUTurf, digital newsletters, and advertised our program in some non-traditional methods (Vehicle Wraps, see backdrop on Twitter). Dissemination of information leads turf managers back to the website that contains real time information on the blog, links to publications, events, jobs/internships, research reports, and the undergraduate and graduate turfgrass program. Having this information at the turf manager’s fingertips “helps me help them.” I know everything about turfgrass management is not on the website but it is a start. That baseline information starts people in the right direction with whatever issue they maybe facing and starts the dialogue to correcting anything they might face.

 

Other ways turfgrass managers can take advantage of the turfgrass extension program is by attending annual field days and turfgrass conferences. Turfgrass managers now can get information online 24 hours a day but when you attend a conference or field day you create connections not only with extension and research personnel from universities, you can create personal contacts within the industry. The contacts that you create when attending onsite training completes a circle or web of information between research, extension, practitioners, industry and universities that strengthen the entire turfgrass industry.

Delvalle: Turf managers can use extension programming in several ways including attending local and regional meetings, scheduling on-site visits, joining an advisory committee, or by subscribing to one of our newsletters.

McCall: We have a variety of opportunities for turf managers to use our Extension program, both through direct channels and indirectly through various associations and meetings. I feel like we have a very strong Turf Extension team in Virginia, with Drs. Mike Goatley, Shawn Askew, Jeff Derr, and myself all having Extension appointments. Additionally, we have a strong support team around us that assist with field research, coordinating meetings, and sometimes filling in for us when we are unavailable to present. We all work very closely with the various associations, such as the Virginia Sports Turf Managers Association. We typically participate in the VSTMA educational programs as often as possible. A large number of sports turf managers reach out directly to us, but many also work through local Extension Agents for problem solving.

McCurdy: Attend educational events! The scale and scope of these events allows exchange of knowledge much better than handholding over the phone or by email. Join your state turf and regional associations. Ours sends out a quarterly magazine and almost weekly updates.

Murphy: We have a number outreach programs that extend recommendations to turf managers. Our partnership with the New Jersey Turfgrass Association, Sports Field Managers of NJ, Golf Course Superintendents Association of NJ, NJ Landscape Contractors Association and others enable us to conduct multiple field day tours each summer of our research farms for the sports, golf and landscape industries. These same partners help us coordinate the annual NJ Green Expo, which brings in speakers from around the country as well as Rutgers to present the latest information on turfgrass science and management. Our fact sheets and bulletins are available online (http://njaes.rutgers.edu/pubs/) for free. We also have a turf blog (http://turfblog.rutgers.edu/) and plant pest advisory newsletter (http://plant-pest-advisory.rutgers.edu/category/landscape-nursery-turf/) that distribute information on turfgrass management through the Internet. Of course, we still answer inquiries via phone and email. And we are always looking for feedback from turf managers about how they like to receive information.

What are your specific job responsibilities, and about how much time do you spend on different segments?

Hoyle: According to my job description part of my specific responsibilities include “establish an innovative and proactive statewide extension and applied research programs that address priority needs of the turfgrass industry and complements the state-wide horticultural extension effort. Also, assist individuals from all facets of the Kansas turfgrass industry.” I know it is very vague on what that all means but ultimately my specific job responsibility in my own words is “To do what I love doing (applied turfgrass research) and get that information out the industry in an effective manner where turfgrass managers utilize that information.” But it is not as simple as getting information out to turfgrass managers but figuring out if what we are doing as turfgrass research and extension professionals is making a positive impact in the industry. I have a 60%/40% split between Extension and Research here at Kansas State. My applied research and extension program focuses on low-input turfgrass systems, weed management and nontraditional extension outreach tools. There is a joke with new Assistant Professors that although they may have a split they operate at 100%/100%. It is hard to tell exactly how much time I spend on extension or research as they both complement one another.

Delvalle: My position with Penn State Cooperative Extension is technically titled “Commercial Horticulture Educator.” I am responsible for Green Industry (which includes turf and ornamentals), Vegetable Production, and Fruit Production. In the winter months, most of my time is spent presenting at local and regional meetings on turf-related topics. Because of my geographic location in Pennsylvania, a large number of Christmas tree farms are nearby, and I service these clients on pest management as well. I also work with right-of-way and industrial weed control organizations, which uses a fair amount of the same chemistries as turf managers. As far as research, I have done research on hops, watermelons, and turf within the past four years in extension. Every day is different, that is for sure.

McCall: I have a 50/50 research and Extension split, but also help out with guest lecturing in some of our undergraduate courses. The number of Extension presentations varies from year to year, but a ballpark figure is about 25 talks spanning from pesticide recertification to specific project updates at association meetings. Like most faculty with an Extension appointment, a major emphasis of my research program is built on problem solving for whatever issues may come up across the state. Generally speaking, our best projects come from talking with turf managers about issues they struggle with and trying to come up with new solutions together. I try to balance my research program with projects that provide an immediate impact and those with larger benefits further down the road.

McCurdy: My appointment is 80% Extension and 20% Teaching. But I feel like I do 100% of everything. We have a robust research program, with several grad students. I alternate teaching “Intro to Weed Science” and “Turfgrass Weed Science” every fall. My Extension appointment means I not only deal with industry professionals, but also homeowners, municipalities, and government agencies. I try to write magazine articles and scientific papers when time allows. And I travel as much as possible to do site visits and presentations.

Murphy: My appointment is a three-way split; approximately 2/3 of my time is spent on Extension activities while the remaining 1/3 is spent on research and teaching. I strive to integrate my activities across all three responsibilities. My research projects are typically problem solving focused, which result in recommendations useful to a turf manager. Thus, the data and conclusions generated are essentially the information that a turf manager will hear at field days and our annual Green Expo. Research findings are also likely to be summarized in fact sheets and bulletins and incorporated in my teaching responsibilities: training graduate students and course materials for undergraduate students.

Kreuser: I have a three way split: 50% Extension, 35% Research, 15% Teaching. I enjoy having this split because my applied research is applicable to my extension and teaching programs. I teach two, three credit, courses each year (Advanced Turf Management and Physiology and Urban Soils). I also advise four graduate students and several undergraduate research students. A big part of the research component includes writing grants to fund my students and program, publishing research articles, and actually doing the experiments (design, data collection, analysis and interpretation). Extension responsibilities are multifaceted with site visits and articles in the summer, appearances on our Backyard Farmer TV show, a couple dozen extension publications around the country each winter. I spend a lot of time continuing to develop, market, and run tech support for our app, GreenKeeperApp.com. The interactions with students during teaching and growers during extension help to shape our research. It is a synergistic relationship.

Where is your state regarding any pesticide/herbicide bans or restrictions, and what is your message to turf managers regarding the issue?

McCall: I would say that Virginia is somewhat middle-of-the-road on pesticide bans or restrictions. We do not have the widespread struggles that some of our neighbors face, though there are some municipalities that have moved forward with legislation to reduce certain inputs. Most pesticide regulatory decisions are made at the state level. The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services works well with Virginia Tech and many commodity associations to ensure that pesticides are applied safely and with the least deleterious impact on the environment as possible. My message to turf mangers is to stay ahead of future regulations by doing things the right way; practice sound cultural practices so that your pesticide applications are most effective, keep good records of everything you apply, and always search for ways to reduce chemical inputs without sacrificing playability.

McCurdy: Off target effects of dicamba have resulted in restrictions on its use for row-crop agriculture, but it’s still available in various forms for turf. It’s old news, but MSMA is restricted use and can’t be applied to sports fields. Buy from a reputable dealer and make sure you’re following label instructions. Read the label!

Murphy: New Jersey has had bills proposed that would severely restrict and, in some cases, ban pesticides. Much of this proposed regulation has been targeted at school and municipal grounds. To date, New Jersey has passed legislation that mandates Integrated Pest Management (IPM) for indoor and outdoor pesticide usage on schools. The School IPM law also requires direct notification of pesticide use to students, parents and staff. Some have incorrectly interpreted the School IPM law as a ban on pesticides, which has made educational efforts more challenging. Similarly, many people think that IPM and the organic management philosophy are the same. Thus, we often spend a fair amount of time teaching people what IPM is and isn’t before we get to details of actual IPM practices. My message to turf managers is to stay current with the latest information on pest management strategies. Being knowledgeable and credible on pesticide regulations and pest management philosophies is crucial to a constructive discussion in developing appropriate regulation of pesticides.

Kreuser: Not much of an issue.

Delvalle: Currently, Pennsylvania doesn’t have any major pesticide restrictions like some of our neighboring states, but that would presumably change in future years. We educate turf managers on these issues, as some of them already deal with them if they perform work in these nearby states. Discussions do occur on pesticides at the local level and it is important that the voice of our industry must be heard before regulations are put in place, and not after. In some cases, those who make decisions on restricting the use of pesticides have not included the users of these products, which is not a desirable situation.

How have any recent budget cuts (or increases!) affected your work?

McCurdy: My lab pays a higher percentage of the bills than we used to, there’s no doubt, but at Mississippi State, we’ve got great support. The state’s industry is growing and administration sees value in keeping a turf teaching and research program. While government funding for higher education and research is certainly important, I think we too frequently overlook the importance of industry responsibility and support (see my next response).

Murphy: Budget cuts at Rutgers are certainly challenging, which I am sure is of no surprise. Receiving a grant award is about the only way to effectively see a budget increase; preparing and submitting grants, when available, requires considerable time. Budget cuts have steadily reduced support staff and operating budgets, which increasingly constrains my time that has to absorb that workload. Thankfully, technology (computers, email, smartphones, etc.) has helped to offset this, but the offset is only partial. “Cuts” have also come in the form of greater personnel costs (fringe benefits), which means that increased costs for graduate students and staff positions reduces what is available to spend on laboratory and field plot maintenance, materials, supplies and equipment.

Kreuser: Turf research and extension programs depend on grants and donations to flourish. There is little federal grant support for turfgrass research. Our program is very thankful to have received grant support from USGA, the Nebraska Turfgrass Association, and various industry partners to sustain a strong program. Nationally, the reduction in turf students possesses a real threat to turfgrass research and extension programs. It is difficult to justify hiring a turfgrass professor in a program with a handful of students. This reduces or eliminates research and extension programs within a state or region.

Delvalle: Here in Pennsylvania, we have been very fortunate to have the support of our local and state governments for extension funding. Turf research at the University level continues to grow, and our extension programming allows the information from research to be disseminated to industry professionals. There are not many educators who focus on turf management, so the lack of personnel keeps us very busy on turf-related issues.

McCall: Virginia has faced a series of budget cuts in recent years, but I think that we have fared well compared with some of my peers in other states. Like everyone, we are asked to do more with less. Immediate contact through emails, text, and social media allows us to stay connected with many people, but I definitely don’t have the opportunity for as many site visits as I once had. I feel like there is an unspoken expectation for us to focus on events where we can communicate with more people at once, rather than individual visits. This is understandable but it does diminish our ability to see many problems in person and get our hands dirty with the turf mangers. I always learn something new from each site visit. I typically try to tie in a few site visits when I am already traveling through an area for Extension talks or field research.

Hoyle: Like many turfgrass managers across the nation I have been affected with reduction in resources. This has created a sense of how can we do “more with less.” It is easy to fall into a negative spiral every time you hear that resources are not going to be available in the future but it has created an opportunity to become more innovative. Instead of trying to figure out how to survive by doing more with less, I constantly look 5, 10 years down the road and figure out how can we not only remain sustainable but also grow. Many times this is thinking outside of the box and trying new things. In the short term, reductions in resources do require more time, more dedication, sacrifice and change. In the long term, hopefully it will lead to new ways of thinking and development and growth of the turfgrass industry.

Is there any specific advice you share with turf managers more often than any other?

Murphy: Soil quality/health and seed recommendations are the two most common subject matters that I address with turf managers. The quality of a soil (whether it be compaction, fertility, biology, etc.) is something that is not easily recognized by property owners and managers. Yet it has tremendous impact on the ability to produce a persistent, high quality turf. Poor soil means that more fertilization, irrigation, and pesticide use are needed than typically would be expected. The ultimate solution is to “fix” the soil but this isn’t always seen as feasible. I often refer to these greater inputs as “Band-Aid” practices, because these only mask the underlying problem. Additionally, there is a reluctance to use enough turfgrass seed (or sod) to repair turf. I am often surprised by the willingness to spend considerable resources on pesticides yet there is essentially little to no budget for overseeding and sodding repairs. There have been numerous site visits were the recommendation is to essentially flip the focus from spending money on pesticide applications to overseeding and/or sod repair work.

Delvalle: For the most part, every situation is different. Most of the questions I get asked are fairly complex, and aren’t something that can be easily found on Google. Though one thing that I do discuss in conversations weekly is proper mowing practices. I find that many folks either don’t use sharp mower blades, mow too low in the summer, or don’t mow often enough.

McCall: My best advice to any turf manager is to be involved and connected as often as possible; talk with us, talk with your peers and/or mentors, go to meetings, attend the STMA or state chapter conferences, attend field days. Take a few minutes each day to scroll through social media posts directly related to your industry. I learn a lot from Twitter, even if I am not chiming in with my thoughts.

Hoyle: Do what is going to make you sleep better at night.

McCurdy: One, pay a fair wage! The price to get an undergraduate degree has more than doubled since the late 90’s. For this reason, undergrads have taken on more debt. As an industry, we’ve got to provide a pay incentive if we want to attract top talent. Two, put out a preemergence herbicide!

About eschroder