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Helping Hands | Summer 2005 Out Here Magazine

Gary Sheppard (left), armed with information and ideas, helps farmers, such as Joe Harim, boost their business.

From lawn care to livestock, extension agents have the answers

By Lori Cumpston

Photography by Lisa Kyle

Gary Sheppard is an idea man. When Westmoreland County, PA, farmers had to be more competitive with their larger counterparts, Sheppard pioneered a buyers group, enabling them to purchase seed and chemicals in volume at discount prices.

He also:

  • Introduced dairy producers to Internet technology so they could share ideas and communicate with each other.
  • Established dairy marketing clubs to teach farmers how to calculate production costs and react to markets.
  • Set up a test farm to illustrate the impact of cutting phosphorous supplements from dairy rations.

Sheppard is the county extension director with Penn State Cooperative Extension, part of a nationwide system that links state universities to the state's citizens, dispensing expertise, research, and information to help them solve problems and improve their quality of life.

About 2,900 extension offices nationwide serve every U.S. county.

The Cooperative Extension Service, overall, maintains fundamental programs — agriculture and natural resources, family and consumer sciences, and 4-H youth development — but every county office isn't identical, says Larry Turner, associate dean for Extension at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, KY.

"Extension is, as you know, a partnership, a cooperative, between federal, state, and local government and they don't dictate the kinds of agents that are in each county in terms of specialty," Turner says. "It varies from state to state and sometimes from county to county."

When the University of Kentucky extension services hires a new agent, they'll try to match applicants' background to the county's needs, yet all agents must be generalists, he says. "A person with dairy expertise might be in Adair County, Ky., and a matter of fact, there is one there, but he also deals with beef farms, with crop production … and he helps in the youth program."

They also answer a lot of questions. "Just in this office alone, we probably field 100 to 150 calls a day," Sheppard says.

Some examples: weed control; water issues; farm financial planning; market prices; gardening information; and how to rid an attic of bats or chase snakes from the basement.

His favorite part of the job? Responding to new issues or opportunities within agriculture.

Sheppard is top-notch, especially when it comes to helping farmers generate cash flow, expand their business, or develop a long-range financial plan, says Gene Schurman, an Indiana dairy extension agent and longtime colleague.

"His expertise is finance and business management and I think he's had a great impact as far as the dairy industry in southwestern Pennsylvania," Schurman says.

Sheppard's creative thinking has earned him the Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of County Agricultural Agents an award presented to the top 2 percent of extension agents in each state.

But you won't see Sheppard basking in accolades.

"An award like that," he says, "is recognition that the system is working."

Lori Cumpston is a freelance writer from Grand Junction, CO.