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Extension career comes full circle to Columbus

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Full circle is what I call it. One of my first jobs even before graduating from Purdue was with Extension, though that was in Wisconsin, where I worked with ginseng producers and answered horticulture queries.

Later, I would work with Penn State Extension in my hometown of Philadelphia, where I answered more horticulture questions and helped the seed judging team at Philadelphia’s agricultural high school get ready for the state fair.

I’ve been working for Purdue Extension in Bartholomew County since April, in the position that covers agriculture, natural resources and community and economic development. I find it an honor to be working for the alma mater, following in some pretty distinguished footsteps. What a pleasure to do that and still call the Columbus area home.

You may know me as the arborist who came to Columbus in the early 1990s to work from Columbus Parks and Recreation Department as city arborist and landscape manager. In 10 years, I was managing park operations that had an annual budget of more than $1 million and a full-time staff of about 27.

When my children came along, I went to work for myself — writing and consulting — so I could flex work around family, doing that for about 15 years. You might call that “living the dream,” but so is Extension work in many ways. Sharing a university’s knowledge base with people who can use that information to improve their lives and livelihoods is a powerful ideal.

By way of introduction, I would like to share a few lesser-known points about my background. Over a 30-plus-year career, a horticulturist can get into some colorful situations.

If you attend one of my “Things They Don’t Teach You in Horticulture School” presentations, you might learn that I once used my diagnostic skills to help the county sheriff solve a UFO sighting. That was on the job in Wisconsin.

Fresh out of graduate school I had to get a bus driver’s license to run river trips at Callaway Gardens. My dad figured it would come in handy in case the “horticulture thing” didn’t work out. Also, I have, all in the line of work, hired a beaver trapper, hauled deer carcasses and run off a badger, but not all in the same day.

Invite me to give the presentation, and I’ll tell you other stories.

What you might not find out in the “Things They Don’t Teach You” presentation is that my arrival in Columbus in 1991 was actually a return. As an undergraduate forestry student, I worked a co-op job at what was then Public Service Indiana and called Columbus “home” for two semesters. As with so many other people I know, I came back when the right job opportunity came along.

Two jobs and many years later, I’m answering those horticulture questions and working with producers. What has changed, you might ask? Well, my hair is grayer, but that’s a minor thing compared with the advances in horticulture, agriculture and arboriculture that I have experienced in 30 years. I will tell you more about that another time.

What I’d like to leave you with is the number and wide range of queries that come in to our office at 1971 State St.

Another thing that has changed is the way in which those questions came in. My first Extension job in 1982 was all about the calls: phone and farm. When I didn’t have a phone to my ear, I was out with the ginseng producers or visiting home gardens.

Now, our questions come by email, through our website or Facebook and over the phone. The farm calls are still important, of course, because good diagnostics and good relationships can’t be limited to phone calls.

Since April of last year, I’ve had more than 1,000 such interactions, ranging from quick calls to extended consults in person, on or off the farm. Extended consults have included farm visits, farm business decisions, community and neighborhood trees, estate planning and land stewardship, drift complaints, and school or community gardens.

The following is the “Top 10” of the shorter queries:

1. Trees

2. Landscaping

3. Insect identification

and control in crops, gardens and homes

4. Home fruit and

nut production

5. Weed identification and control in gardens and crops

6. Vegetable gardening

7. Lawns

8. Crop and garden soils

9. Wildlife damage control

10. Ponds

The “second 10” has involved questions about pasture, forages, cash rents, land values and hay prices. More unusual queries concerned log weights, spider bites and sourcing heirloom grains for a distillery. No UFOs — yet — but my full-circle experience tells me that the queries will run the gamut! I look forward to sharing the Extension experience with you in this space.

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