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Conversations from the Field features interviews with sustainable agriculture leaders. It is designed to highlight successful practices, creative programs, and progressive ideas, and to encourage readers to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the sustainable ag movement. We welcome your feedback on Conversations from the Field.

Debi Kelly — the Missouri Alternatives Center

Debra Kelly

Debi Kelly is the Project Manager for the Missouri Alternatives Center (MAC). She provides information and resources to Missouri farmers, Extension staff, government personnel and others. Most are people who want to begin farming, diversify their current operation, or find ways to profit from small amounts of acreage. She answers questions on a variety of topics and maintains the MAC LinkList, a Web listing of links to hundreds of alternative agriculture topics. She strives to help farmers and educators find the information they need. Margo Hale, NCAT Agricultural Specialist, sat down to talk with Debi about her involvement in sustainable agriculture.

 

Q. What is your background in sustainable agriculture?

A. I didn't grow up around agriculture. I grew up in the concrete of St. Louis, but I always loved going out to the country. My heart was always to be in the country and to be around agriculture. I have a B.S. in Horticulture and a Master's in Vocational Agriculture Education. I taught vocational horticulture in Kansas for one year and then I spent a few years in Mexico teaching English as a second language. I started working at the Missouri Alternatives Center 13 years ago. I came in as an administrative assistant but soon took over as the project manager full time. I feel an asset I have is that because I didn't grow up on a farm, I don't have any preconceived ideas of what a farm should look like; what a farmer should look like; what a farmer should grow; or how a farmer should be growing it. Therefore, I never thought that any questions that came in were crazy or off-the-wall. I'm constantly amazed by the creativity and ingenuity of the farmers that call. Because I don't have any of those preconceived ideas about what agriculture should be, I was willing to search and find information on topics that aren't common.


Q. What is the history of the Missouri Alternatives Center (MAC)?

A. The Missouri Alternatives Center began with Ron Macher and the Small Farm Today magazine (then called Missouri Farm ). Ron would get lots of calls and questions about the articles and information in his magazine. He came together with the University of Missouri, Lincoln University, Missouri Department of Agriculture, and Missouri Department of Conservation; they saw the need to be able to answer those questions so they started the program. MAC is now completely funded and run by the University of Missouri Extension. I am the project manager and the only employee of MAC.



Q. What is your role at MAC?

The Missouri Alternatives Center's mission is to provide Missourians with timely information about alternative agricultural opportunities, to evaluate diverse enterprises, improve management decisions, increase economic returns and enhance the quality of their lives.

A. I serve as a conduit of information. Farmers, Extension specialists and other information providers call when they need information or an answer to a question, and I find that information for them. For example, any time Extension specialists get a question about meat goats, they either call me or have the client call me. Being a part of the university, I am supposed to send out research-based information. However, for some topics and some questions there just isn't any research-based information. In these cases I'll send the best non-researched based materials I can find as long as the person understands that it is not research-based-information.

I also use organizations such as the Kerr Center, the Center for Rural Affairs, ATTRA, and other government agencies to find legitimate information to send out as well. I have made lots of connections with people all over the country, so if I don't know the answer, I can usually find someone who does. I know a little bit about a whole lot of things but nothing in real detail. The detail isn't important. What is important is that I find you the answer or find someone who does know the answer. I try my best to make sure everyone gets the information they need.



Q. How have you seen sustainable agriculture develop and change?

A. When I first started I didn't even know what sustainable agriculture was. I was introduced to John Ikerd (Professor Emeritus at the Unversity of Missouri) and was fortunate to have him as a mentor and learn from him. I worked with him on several SARE PDP (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Professional Development Program) grants which helped me to network across the region. During this time, I also learned how to put grants together and how to do workshops and conferences. I now see sustainable agriculture as not only being community oriented, environmentally oriented, and financially oriented, but I also see it as being family oriented as well. I see it as people really wanting to get away from the rat race, the hustle and bustle. People want to remember what life used to be like, and they want to remember what food really tastes like. People have such a desire to learn and they want to purchase locally; they want to get to know their farmers. They want to know who grows their food and how it was produced. I'm so glad I've been able to raise my kids this way. They know what a real chicken tastes like and they eat a huge variety of fruits and vegetables. It's so important to try to get consumers involved.



Q. What areas of sustainable agriculture do you see on the rise? Where do you see sustainable agriculture headed?

Debra Kelly in the field

A. I used to say organics, but I feel organics has arrived. Local food systems are starting to arrive. I don't know what the "next" thing is. What I do see, is a change in who is going to be farming in the future. There are always going to be large corporate farms, but what I see is more and more new farmers coming along. I'm seeing people who have been a few generations or two away from the farm or those who grew up on the farm, said they didn't want to farm, went to the city, and now are returning back to the farm. A lot of these people are family oriented and want to go into farming. This is a new kind of people who want to farm. We need to be focusing on teaching the basics again. I've been stressing this on campus. I joke that some of these new people to agriculture don't even know which end of the cow to feed! But they can learn just as I did.

A focus these new people need to learn about farming sustainably is the need to figure out or relearn what their values are, from those values what are their goals, and from those goals, how does the farm fit in. People who call MAC ask questions like "How to grow asparagus" or "how to raise organic beef." Those are fine questions but they need to go back and decide what are their farm goals and farm values, their family values, and who will be involved in the decision making. Once this is accomplished, then they can figure out what it is they want to produce. I like to play the devil's advocate, I want to make people think about the decisions they are making.

I am also seeing that the younger generations think differently. They are already looking at local foods. Students on campus are asking for natural and organic foods. They want the cafeteria to serve local foods. This younger generation is somehow already educated on these topics. I'm not sure where they learned it. In some ways the middle generation needs to catch up and learn that as well.



Q. You were involved with the Farm Beginnings Program in Missouri. Tell me about that.

A. The Farm Beginnings Program was started by the Land Stewardship Project (LSP) in Minnesota. It is a course that helps new and beginning farmers evaluate farm enterprises. The program includes 32 hours of classroom time taught by educators and farmers, farm tours, and a mentorship. I had my eye on this program for a while. I had someone from LSP come to Missouri and do a presentation on the program. Educators in Illinois and Nebraska were interested in the program too, so we wrote a North Central SARE PDP grant, and were awarded funds to implement the program in our states. Several of us went up to LSP and were trained to be Farm Beginnings educators. Missouri had their first class last year in West Plains and it was very successful. The participants were very diverse and many traveled several hours to be a part of the program. It was interesting because one-third to one-half of the participants had never heard of Extension before—a new audience for us in Extension. In Missouri the Farm Beginnings program was sponsored by Extension. The program is nice because you can cater your program to the types of agriculture taking place in your area. One of our participants purchased land and is farming vegetables organically now. She had worked in Chicago for several years and had saved enough money so she didn't have to worry about an income from the farm for two years. During those two years she was enabling herself to learn how to farm. It is so neat to see these new types of people getting involved in agriculture.

The University of Missouri Extension decided they wanted their own program, so they didn't renew their contract with LSP to have the Farm Beginnings Program. I'm taking the lead in developing the curriculum for Missouri 's version of the Farm Beginnings Program. Our program will have classroom time with Extension and producer educators and farm tours. I like having a farmer presenter involved during the classroom time. It is helpful because the farmer brings in his or her own different perspectives and techniques. We will have training for Extension agents this summer and will start our first program in the late fall or early winter. We have titled it "Grow Your Farm: The Missouri Way."



Q. What challenges to sustainable agriculture do you see?

A. I still feel there is a big rift between the sustainable agriculture and conventional agriculture mindset. I don't think it as big as it once was, but it is still there. I believe there needs to be more inclusion of people who aren't necessarily sustainably like-minded. Bring them along because how else are they going to learn if we don't bring them with us? A lot of people say, "if you aren't sustainable then we don't want to include you." You have to teach these people in some way, shape, or form or else they will always be on the outside, not included. If we don't include conventional agriculture in our disscussions and training, then the walls and barriers will stay. Some may not consider themselves as thinking sustainably, but really they do. I honestly believe this is something we need to think about, to be more inclusive of people who don't think as we do.



Q. What words of advice would you give to those getting involved with sustainable agriculture?

A. Networking is key. There are so many creative ways of doing things, you may not know how to do something better unless you visit with someone else. What I have found is that the majority of people working in sustainable agriculture believe in it so much they are willing to share their knowledge with others. Sharing of knowledge is what I think will make sustainable agriculture truly viable as it moves forward.

 

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This page was last updated on: August 26, 2014