10 Exceptional Extension Specialists

At NCRWN, we are proud to be an Extension-led partnership.  Extension provides a critical bridge between applied research and the people, organizations, and communities that can use that research to strengthen decision-making.  Below are ten examples of exceptional extension specialists making a difference in communities across the nation.  Seven out of the ten are from the North Central Region and a number have collaborated with the NCRWN!

The following story was written by Gene Johnson. It has been published by Successful Farming at and republished here.

For more than 100 years, Cooperative Extension Service has been extending the science and knowledge of land-grant universities to the citizens of America. Some say this unique system of remote science application has outlived its usefulness. Bigger farm operations, private business experts, budget cuts, and cyber communications have passed it by, they say.

Well, not so fast! Here are 10 examples of Extension specialists (of the 10,000 Extension employees) and the programs they lead across the country. In most cases, no one else is doing the work they do, and no one is doing it independently – no biases, nothing for sale.

It is still exceptional Extension.


Ron-Graber The biggest issue in agriculture? It might be water quality, where rural and urban meet and sometimes clash.

Ron Graber sees that one close up. The Kansas State University Extension watershed specialist educates on the topic to both rural and urban audiences and provides technical assistance, as well.

He and Kansas State Extension helped achieve success involving better stewardship of the herbicide atrazine in the watershed around Wichita. “Sometimes, atrazine spikes to levels above the drinking water standard,” he says.

“Through a partnership of farmers and the city, we minimized those spikes by implementing best-management practices from Extension. The city provides funds to help the farmers, and that saves thousands in treatment costs,” he says.

Extension remains the primary source of unbiased, science-based solutions to issues affecting people and their livelihood, he says. “We don’t tell anyone what to do. We only provide facts enabling them to make informed decisions.”


Deborah-ZakTribal leaders from the White Earth Nation in northwest Minnesota had a simple request for Deborah Zak and her University of Minnesota Extension colleagues: Help us lower our high school dropout rate. The tribe asked Zak to use the natural resources of the reservation to teach tribal youth that math and science have always been in the Ojibwe traditions.

That was in 1998, and they’ve offered the White Earth Academy of Math and Science for 4th through 8th graders for the past 19 summers. Students measure forests and trees, test lake water, inspect for invasive aquatic species, and keep nature journals to record changes they observe.

“They also record podcasts of tribal elders talking about changes in their lifetimes,” says Zak.

In 2017, the Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine shared career possibilities in that field.

“Extension’s future is bright as long as we keep current with changing demographics and issues that are important to our citizens,” Zak believes.


Zach-GrantThis is Extension like you’ve never imagined it. Zach Grant is an urban agriculture Extension specialist for Cook County. Yes, that’s Chicago, with 5.28 million people, six University of Illinois Extension offices, and 75 employees!

“The transition to urban agriculture has been spearheaded by major cities, Chicago included,” says Grant of his specialty. “We help entrepreneurs establish urban food systems.”

Most city farmers grow fruits and vegetables on vacant lots and less-than-acre parcels of land tucked among buildings. Some use high-tunnel greenhouses; others use storage containers to grow micro-greens (small vegetables) for specialty markets.

One of Grant’s initiatives is connecting urban food growers and bankers, a link that hasn’t existed before. He’s also launched a Master Urban Farmer Training Program, patterned after the Master Gardener Program.

“There aren’t enough of us in Extension for the population we serve,” he says. “So we concentrate on underserved needs and areas of real food insecurity.”


matt-smithAfter petroleum, what’s the next greatest natural resource deficit of the U.S.?

If you said seafood, bingo! Matt Smith, the Extension aquaculture specialist for Ohio State University, is changing that by bringing his aquaculture experience from Alabama and Arkansas (both fish-farming leaders) to the Midwest.

Ohio State just launched a three year USDA-funded project called Aquaculture Boot Camp for beginning aquaculture or aquaponics (fish combined with soilless plant production) farmers. Applicants dedicate one day a month for a year to learn the business.

“Students come to our South Centers for hands-on learning opportunities and even farm tours and internships. This will assist aquaculture expansion in the Midwest and, hopefully, reduce our seafood deficit,”
Smith says.


Kent-ShannonWhen Missouri corn and soybean growers wanted to implement a technology-based, on-farm research program, they found the perfect partner in Extension agricultural engineering specialist Kent Shannon. He’s been helping farmers harness technology throughout his 25-year Extension career.

The two-year-old Missouri Strip Trial Program brings together GPS technology, yield monitors, variable-rate controllers, and drones. “Once you program the strip trial instructions into the equipment, then you just plant and harvest and get a printout of results. Technology does the work,” says Shannon.

“This is an Extension niche in providing unbiased, research-based information. I like helping farmers see what works on their farms.”

Shannon has also worked with farm drones since 2013 to get in-season crop images to verify ground cover and crop stands.

There’s much more to come, he predicts. “New multispectral cameras will tell you when a field is under stress from lack of nutrients or pests.”


Melissa-ORourkeMelissa O’Rourke spent 20 years as a private attorney, working with Midwest farm families on estate and succession planning, litigation, and other issues.

“I did some contract work for Iowa State University Extension, and then I had the opportunity to join them full time as an Extension farm business management specialist,” she says. “It was the perfect storm of combining my background in agriculture, education, and law. I help farmers plan for the future.”

Estate and succession planning are the bulk of that consulting, but she also helps farmers find and keep good employees. “When I can help a farm family think about the future, solve problems, mend relationships, and start on a good path to the future, that’s very satisfying,” she says.

“I have no monetary gain from the work I do,” she says in support of Extension. “This service is not available to agriculture anywhere else.”



Stephen-BrownIt was a match made in heaven 10 years ago, when Stephen Brown signed on as the new Extension agent on the Matanuska Experiment Farm in Palmer, Alaska. The avid wilderness hiker now works with many pioneer farmers in the river valley and travels to some of the remotest spots in the U.S.

“Teaching people how to be self-reliant gets me excited,” he says. “How many Extension agents get to snowmobile hundreds of miles up a frozen river and camp in the snow to teach Arctic gardening to an isolated Eskimo community?”

With the warming climate, some think Alaska could become the new Midwest, he says, not the least bit in jest.

Early in his career, Brown did a two-year Extension stint in New York City. “People are very uninformed about how food is produced,” he says of the experience. “If I wasn’t in Alaska, I’d go back to New York in a heartbeat.”


larry-mooreheadThere’s a lot of be said for finding your niche and sticking with it. That’s Larry Moorehead, the County Extension director in Moore County, Tennessee, for 40 years. “We’re in the business of helping people, and that’s why I’m still doing it,” says the Extension veteran.

With his animal science background, Moorehead helped a lot of cattle producers use science-based nutrition to triple daily gains on backgrounded steers. However, hay wastage is the issue that made his reputation.

“When round bales came on, we stored them outside and wasted over a third, proven by a test I conducted here in Moore County,” he says. “We started building storage barns, and I’ve carried that story from one end of this state to the other. I’m known as the Hay Barn Man in Tennessee.

He believes local demonstrations of new farming practices set Extension apart. “We bring the university to the farmers,” he says.



Tony-CookYes, Extension reaches outer space. Tony Cook, an Extension 4-H specialist at Auburn University in Alabama and a lifelong space dreamer, has led more than 20,000 youngsters from 45 states through 4-H Space Camps in Alabama and Florida.

With recent renewed interest in space and technology, in general, farming in space is a hot topic, he says. “If we’re going to Mars, we have to take a farm with us.”

He marvels that space-worthy food technology – hydroponics and vertical farming, for instance – is leading a food revolution on Earth, particularly in urban environments.

Cook dreams big about the potential for science in 4-H programs. “We can do a learning program about space agriculture with online classes and offline applications. Access to the knowledge is in the palm of our hand,” he says.

For him, it’s not happening fast enough. “The technology is here now!” he says with some frustration. “I see so much opportunity for even greater things in Extension.”



Nathan-MuellerNathan Mueller, a Nebraska Extension educator for cropping systems in two counties of northeast Nebraska, opened a café for farmers in his region.

His Crop Tech Cafe doesn’t have coffee or donuts, as it exists only in the cyberworld as an agronomy blog. It’s a place farmers can hear from experts, ask questions, and chat with neighbors.

“We post audio recordings from radio interviews, highlight upcoming events and university resources, share presentations, and much more,” Mueller explains.

Other Nebraska Extension crop educators have joined the effort, and last year, they served 3,000 Nebraska users in the Crop Tech Cafe.

Mueller says helping farm growers interpret research from the University of Nebraska and neighboring state institutions is the most satisfying thing he does. Farmers know how quickly climate and soils change as you go east to west and north to south, especially in a state like Nebraska, he says.

“We have 29 distinct ecoregions, and that brings lots of additional questions, such as ‘Will the results be the same on my farm, in my fields, with my equipment, and with my management?’ ”

Helping farmers find those answers can be the most impactful thing an Extension agent does, Mueller thinks. He likes to use the Nebraska On-Farm Research Network, coordinated by two other Extension educators, to evaluate practices and products locally and to share results with all farmers.

“We provide unbiased, science-based agronomic information to growers,” Mueller says. “Any potential conflict of interest is removed. Nebraska Extension is a great partner for that third-party service.”

October 2017 Director Upate

Impossible Tasks

I was in Biloxi, Mississippi for a meeting last month, just before Hurricane Nate. While I was disheartened to see images of floodwaters where I’d been walking just a week before, I was grateful the damage was not worse. At that meeting, we were addressing a challenge that seems nearly as impossible as keeping the Mississippi Sound at bay as hurricane force winds push the water inland: substantially reducing the hypoxic zone in that same body of water, while still producing food, housing, and other services important for human life on the land that funnels water to the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to nutrient management challenges before us, the American Society of Civil Engineers most recent Infrastructure Report Card tells us that funding gaps for water infrastructure from 2015-2025 include $105 billion for drinking water and wastewater, $15 billion for inland waterways and marine ports, $39.4 billion for dams, and $70 billion for levees. Total: nearly $340 billion. And if that’s not enough, the stories we hear on the news are less about Herculean accomplishments, and more about clashes of the Titans.

Clearly, we are not the first people in history to face challenges that at times feel insurmountable. Before the internet and the expansion of retail therapy, we used great stories to comfort ourselves and gain insights on how to get through the seemingly impossible tasks in our lives. Consider Hercules, who had to complete the twelve labors – including killing a formidable lion, cleaning vast stables in a day (his solution was a precursor to today’s manure management systems!), and stealing Zeus’s golden apples. In these stories, “impossible tasks” often required super-human powers (like the strength of Hercules) or divine intervention. Others required mere mortal smarts and cleverness, such as carrying water in a sieve, filling an entire room with an object that can be bought with a single coin (solution: buy a candle, which fills the room with light), or sorting spilled lentils from the ashes of a cooking fire. But no matter what the “impossible task” may be, they all required a dogged commitment to getting the job done.

Which brings me to the potential upside of all this. News aside, in the Great Lakes, in the Mississippi River Basin, and in my local watershed, I see a marked willingness to compile accurate data about the water challenges we face, and to collaborate among farmers, ag industry representatives, watershed organizers, state and federal agency personnel, and others to find solutions that work for everyone. And while there are no guarantees that our current plans will work, it’s the accurate and transparent information about performance that will give us the ability to collectively examine whether our efforts are succeeding, or if we are, like Sisyphus, continuing to push a boulder uphill only to have it roll back down again day after day. Hopefully we will have the courage to chart a new course if required.

Rebecca Power, Network Director

Imagine a Day Without Water: What it means to the North Central Region?

“Imagine: No water to drink, or even make coffee with. No water to shower, flush the toilet, or do laundry.  Hospitals would close without water.  Firefighters couldn’t put out fires and farmers couldn’t water their crops”.  

That statement was taken from The Value of Water: Imagine a Day Without Water Campaign website.  Here in the North Central Region Water Network, that last sentence rings especially poignantly.  After all, what is agriculture and farming without water?  Although seemingly a simple question, the possibility of having to face this question head-on may become more real as our climate continues to change.

It is important now to be aware of the role of water in our world, our country, and our state levels.  Without water, many of the everyday aspects of life we often take for granted may suffer.  By supporting water education, agriculture research, and water programs in our region, the NCRWN is helping to make sure an actual day without water never comes to fruition.  

We asked some key members of our organization three important questions:

  • What does water mean to your state or in your profession? Explain the role of water.
  • What would a day without water look like in your respective state or from your professional perspective?
  • Why do you think awareness of water issues is important not only to professionals but also the general public?

Naeem Kalwar, Extension Area Specialist/Soil Health at North Dakota State University

  1. Overall, like other States, water is very important for North Dakota to have green pastures and fields to produce healthy animals and record yielding crops. As a soil health specialist, I look at water being essential for life both under and above the soils. However, it needs to be managed if in excess, like North East North Dakota.
  2. A day without water under drought will be painstakingly long, however, if the crops are mature, it could be a blessing.
  3. It is very important that general public and professionals are aware of the water issues. Without public support, professional cannot address the issues.

Chad Watts, Conservation Technology Information Center

  1. Water is an essential component of life.  In Indiana, water is a valuable resource to help produce feed, fuel and fiber, and to sustain aquatic communities.  Some of the most diverse freshwater communities in the world reside in the Midwest, including many rare and threatened species of freshwater mussels.  These communities rely on clean freshwater systems for their existence.  All of these communities, including the human community, need water to survive, making water a critical component of everyday life.
  2. A day without water is something hard to grasp.  Water is so essential to our everyday lives, and we are blessed with such an abundance of freshwater in the Midwest that not having water would be a major impediment to daily life.  No flowing rivers, no aquifers, and no lakes or puddles would be akin to living on another planet for a day compared to what we are used to.  However, I do think that we take water for granted, especially in the Midwest where we have so much and it is such a part of our daily lives.  A day without water would be a wake-up call for the public to protect the water we do have and would raise awareness of water’s importance to our everyday lives.  Even in times of drought, when we hear so much about the lack of water, we still have flowing rivers and while our lakes may be below normal levels, there is still water in them.  In our climate, a drought is something that garners a lot of attention.  Imagine the attention that having no water would generate and the importance that the public would then place on protecting such a needed resource that we so often take for granted.
  3. Often, in the humid climates of the Midwest, we discount the value of rain or flowing waters because we are so accustomed to having an abundance of water.  To those who don’t get the amount and frequency of rainfall that we do, water is a highly valued commodity.  Often in the Midwest, we worry about having too much water and are always looking for ways to manage water such that it doesn’t impact our basements, farm fields and infrastructure.  Our concern isn’t that we don’t have enough, rather often that we have too much water.  Thus, it is difficult to get people behind considering strategies that protect water that we have because not having enough water, or not enough clean water, seems not to be a real threat to people.  Awareness of water as a precious resource is very important to getting people onboard with protecting water.

Nathan Meyer, Program Leader in Natural Resources for the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources

  1. Water is a deep and consistent element of Minnesota’s heritage and identity. For our state, it means our position at the headwaters of multiple national waterways. It means fishing, family cabins, boating and skiing. It waters millions of acres of cropland. It gives rise to the world-class wilderness that we call dear. For my profession, it entails innovative efforts to tackle the grand challenge of sustainable agricultural production, social-ecological challenges like mining and shipping in close proximity to vulnerable waters, managing impacts of urban livelihoods, recreation and transit.
  2. Inconceivable, but perhaps more common. For just a day, statewide agricultural fields and forests would wither. Dredges might be on-the-ready to dig deeper shipping channels. Lake home and cabin owners, other recreationists might worry over diminishing lake levels. Unfortunately, we have suffered more recent and frequent drought in the state.
  3. It is the public who ultimately demands water resources, drives wise use/management decisions, and supports sustainable and innovative management. Public awareness is critical for their understanding, support and involvement in sustaining water resources.

Imagine a Day Without Water is simply a campaign to raise awareness, to spark discussions, and to have people question our water systems and how they function.  Continue supporting water programs, continue furthering agricultural research, and continue developing smarter ways to structure water so we never have to imagine a day without our most precious resource.

Soil and Water Conservation Society: Looking Ahead

The following interviews have been edited for style and clarity. 


Conservation is a word that has sparked in popularity over the past few years.  Often paired within stories around climate change, pollution, and negative narratives, conservation is seen as a modern necessity to a modern problem.  While conservation is most definitely an important part of modern society, it has been around longer than most people think.  In agricultural states, conservation has been an essential tool in educating, modernizing, and sustaining farming industries.

One organization that has been pivotal in tackling the multi-tiered challenge of conservation is the Soil and Water Conservation Society (or SWCS).  The science-based natural resource conservation organization was established nearly 75 years ago and was initially developed as an organization to educate on simple agricultural practices like erosion control.  SWCS has taken its deep-rooted history in farmland conservation and combined it with communication and advocacy efforts to increase awareness of the latest conservation research.  With an ever-evolving climate, planet, and population, the organization is continually adapting to meet the new demands of each generation.

One way SWCS keeps on top of cutting-edge research and technologies is through their International Annual Conference which brings together agriculture, conservation, research, and scientific professionals together to share information and educate each other.

The SWCS International Annual Conference was recently hosted in Madison, Wisconsin and brought leaders from a variety of backgrounds to focus on the value of their connections. The conference centered on how collaboration and communication are vital in SWCS and in all areas of conservation.

SCWS President Jim Gulliford has been actively serving in the organization for over 30 years and has helped SWSC adapt to new challenges, while still remaining firm on the organization’s core values.  Gulliford notes the SWSC annual conferences as one of the primary strengths of the organization.

“We gather once a year in what we call our annual conference to share information: what we’ve learned over the past year, the results of projects, research, activities, all of those things because just to perform a project complete a project isn’t nearly as important as to interact and network with people who can find value from it.  The purpose of our conference is to add value to individuals’ work as they share it with others,” Gulliford said.

“We chose the title Conservation Connections [for this year’s conference] because it really gets to the heart of the challenge we face,” Gulliford said in response to the meaning of this year’s theme.  “None of our issues can be singularly solved, by the farmer, the scientist, the conservation professional in the field, the agribusiness, the university, the government agencies.  The connections are important, how they collaborate to take advantage of their specific skills.  All of these things have to come together.  The problems we face are complex.  The solutions are complex and requires multiple disciplines and individuals to make it happen.  We really wanted to make a point this year that it’s all about how these agencies and organizations connect to make a difference.”

 Although Gulliford has completed his run as Executive Director of the Soil and Water Conservation Society, new leaders are rising to the challenge to keep SWCS a key player in conservation.  Rest assured, even though Gulliford’s experience is unmatched, he’s not worried about the future of the organization.

The conference highlighted the future of SWCS and the next steps, including the announcement of Clare Lindahl as the new Chief Executive Officer.  Not only did the conference connect organizations, address important water issues, and showcase speakers presenting on a variety of conservation topics, but it also recognized members of SWSC who have shown exemplary commitment to the organization.  UW-Madison and UW-Extension’s very own Francisco Arriaga became an SWCS Fellow at this year’s conference.

“[The Fellow Award] recognizes the work and activities of members in [the Soil and Water Conservation Society] who fulfilled the mission of the society,” Arriaga said. “It goes beyond just having publications or things like that.  It also looks at all the activities that you’ve done: communication, international activities, [and] other things you’ve been involved with.”

Arriaga was recognized through his work over the past ten years.  After volunteering as vice president and eventually president of the SWCS Alabama chapter, he came to UW-Madison in 2012.  He currently serves as the Wisconsin chapter president.

“I’ve been a member [of the SWCS] since about 1996.  Being a state specialist with extension, a lot of activities I do are actually not only helping farmers but also educating all of our peers on issues related to soil and water conservation and water quality issues around the state and beyond,” Arriaga said.  “So I’ve been invited regionally to go and talk in different states in the Midwest.  I’ve also been invited to speak internationally, in Brazil for example. [The Fellow Award] is kind of a combination of all those activities and all that work.”

The 2017 SWCS Conference recognized the individual contributions of great leaders like Gulliford and Arriaga while emphasizing the bright future of SWCS and the power in its connections.

Director Update: August 2017

What We Know

One early morning last week, my sister’s blue Honda pulled into my driveway, just as the sun was turning the branches of the neighbor’s oak tree golden. We live about 10 minutes apart, so we get together a few times a week for a run or bike ride, and to catch up on family news.

This morning she walked up the front stairs and as I opened the door to let her in she handed me an old publication – flaking, yellowed, and lightly dusted with mold and mildew.

“Look at the date,” she said. I was afraid to unfold the thing or turn the pages for fear it would crumble in my hands. In truth it was not as fragile as I had first thought. So I put it down on my desk and opened it so I could see the front page. October 14, 1893.

Gently examining the time-stiffened pages further, I saw that it was a copy of the Orange Judd Farmer, published near the conclusion of the six-month Chicago World’s Fair. The fair showcased a newly rebuilt city, 22 years after the Great Chicago Fire; exhibits from 46 nations; and the latest in architecture, art, transportation, urban planning, engineering, science and agriculture. Among the ads for Spencer’s Full Circle Hay and Straw Press, the Staver Buckeye Feed Mill and Power, and the Page Woven Wire Fence Co., an article on the second page caught my attention: Saving Manures.

The article starts:

It is not necessary for Experiment Stations to tell us that manures, kept continually exposed to rain and sun, must lose their essential elements, and that, too, very rapidly. We see very often streams of dark, black liquid issuing from fertilizer heaps, and perhaps running down some slope into pond or brook, where the crops are not liable to receive much benefit from them. Why are these leaks permitted and how remedied, are the questions. The first is hard to answer, but the second is no very difficult solution. Mix manure liberally with absorbents, and keep under cover.

It concludes with this sentence:

The matter of saving manure can not be looked into too closely. It is folly to depend on commercial fertilizers when much of our own manure goes to waste.

I was struck by the idea that this article could have been written today – nearly 125 years later. I must confess the realization gave me mixed feelings. My first reaction was one of comfort. Why? In part, because I had just attended a manure composting demonstration as part of the 2017 North American Manure Expo at Endres Berryridge Farm, LLC. Jeff Endres, one of three brothers that operate the dairy farm, is experimenting with manure composting for the heifer calf part of their operation. Jeff’s composting operation uses the same basic practices recommended in 1893 – Mix manure liberally with absorbents, and keep under cover. There was comfort in being reminded that some best practices never change.

During the tour, Endres shared three primary reasons for looking more closely at composting as an innovative manure management strategy: yield boosts (alfalfa), operational flexibility (spreading on growing crops), and keeping nutrients on the farm and out of the water (lower mobility and longer spreading windows to further minimize runoff risk).

Given all the benefits of managing manure through composting, my second reaction was a bit of frustration mixed with curiosity. How do the fundamentals become lost? When we respond to changing market conditions and new technologies, how do we keep the fundamentals intact?

Then I realized that as much as we know about managing manure, we probably know even more about fundamental best practices for communicating information. Humans have always passed important lessons down from generation to generation, through relationships and stories. Even in the age of automation, social media, and big data, we rely on relationships – person to person and smaller group communication with trusted sources – as we attempt to sort fact from fiction. And we know the value of stories for translating complex ideas and helping them stick in our individual memories and our networks. While we need science to help us analyze information, we need compelling stories to communicate that information effectively. While funding for manure management and other conservation practices is critical, we know that investing in a sufficient number of well-trained people to assist with conservation decision-making is a fundamental best practice.

A lot has changed since 1893 Chicago World’s Fair; however, we cannot lose hard-fought lessons that are still valid today. We know that composting, saving, and properly distributing manure nutrients makes sense for agriculture. And while the Orange Judd Farmer said we didn’t need the Experiment Stations to tell us that, we do need someone to keep speaking up. Perhaps the Experiment Stations, the Extension system founded nearly 20 years later, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, conservation NGOs, local conservation districts, and insightful farmer and ag industry organizations, all working together, can help us keep ideas that have anchored agriculture and rural communities for hundreds and probably thousands of years front and center.


If you would like to contribute ideas for the future of the North Central Region Water Network, feel free to send me a note at



Rebecca Power, Network Director

Network Impact 2020 Initiatives and Capacity Building

The North Central Region Water Network is pleased to announce the North Central Region Water Network Impact 2020 Initiatives and Capacity Building Initiatives for 2018.  Thanks to the Network Leadership Team, Regional Administrative Council, and initiative leads for their work on these successful proposals. Special thanks to North Central Region Extension Directors for providing funding and multistate collaborations to address water issues in the North Central Region.

Please share this news with appropriate audiences in your states and professional networks.  Several of the teams are still seeking additional collaborators from other states and partners, so feel free to contact their leaders or me if you have suggestions.

The following Impact 2020 initiatives are funded from August 2017 through December 2019

Empower Educators to Improve Water Quality by Adoption of Soil Health Practices ($89,971) – led by Curell and Gross (Michigan State University) with supporting leadership from Iowa State University, the University of Missouri, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the University of Wisconsin

  • Proposal Abstract: The hydrologic cycle is intimately linked to soils. Healthy soils are recognized by university researchers, farmers, and agribusiness as high performing and productive. The Soil Health Nexus and Manure and Soil Health (MaSH) efforts began the process of identifying and assembling current science-based soil health training and educational resources. The MaSH group provided mini-grants and launched a very successful web-based roundtable series around the science of manure and soil health. This proposal will continue the work that the Soil Nexus and MaSH groups began, where the focus will be on expanding our digital footprint i.e. podcasts, roundtable, webinars, presentations, etc. In addition to the traditional factsheets, white papers, and extension publications, we will assemble outstanding soil health/MaSH presentations and ideas that extension educators could replicate in their local field days and other extension programs into a toolkit. The educational information that we will assemble will be the result of surveying growers and agribusinesses on their perceived barriers to adopt good soil health practices. This proposal envisions dividing up the region by states that have similar soil and farming systems and rely on our partnering researchers in each state to supply related applied research for each system. In-service training for extension educators will continue in person and via distance technology.


Providing the Foundation for Lasting Climate Education in the North Central Region ($89,283) – led by Laura Edwards (South Dakota State University) with supporting leadership from the University of Illinois, K-State, Iowa State University, Michigan State University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Missouri, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, North Dakota State University, Purdue University, and the Ohio State University

  • Proposal Abstract: Climate variability continues to be a defining factor in agriculture and water quality in the North Central Region. Various extreme weather events and their increasing frequency turn good waterways bad. Farm management practices and their interaction with typical climates of a region also can influence water, water quality, and water management. Meanwhile, farmers and extension professionals need education in climate science and climate change in order to alter management practices to more easily meet standards in various states’ Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategies, more efficiently utilize inputs, and maintain economic profitability. In the North Central Region, a team of extension professionals with experience at the connection between agriculture and climate has been identified. This Regional Climate Team will be utilizing their expertise to create and manage education around ag, water, and climate in the region. A variety of methods for professional development will be provided by this project to educate, encourage and empower Extension professionals to conduct programs and serve as local experts. Sub-regional workshops, webinars, conference calls and financial support for local programming will enable a “train-the-trainer” method to disseminate research and bet management practices across the region. Outputs of our activities will include further dissemination of results from the USDA CAP and Useful to Usable initiatives including fact sheets, webinars, and YouTube videos. Other recent research-based resources and media will be utilized as appropriate to further the education for Extension professionals and ag producers. Outcomes include a more informed Extension community comfortable with providing programming at the intersection of ag, water, and climate. Longer term, the educated clientele from these programs will be better able to institute farm management practices that conserve resources and enhance productivity.
The following Capacity Building initiatives are funded from August 2017 through August 2018

Determining the GAPS in Youth Water Education in the North Central Region ($7,000) – led by Amy Timmerman (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) with supporting leadership from Michigan State University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Missouri, the Ohio State University, and the University of Wisconsin.

  • Proposal Abstract: According to the World Economic Forum, January 2015, “The water crisis is the #1 global risk based on impact to society (as a measure of devastation), and #8 global risk based on likelihood (likelihood of occurring with 10 years).” Also stated at the World Economic Forum, it is estimated that one in nine people in the world lack access to improved sources of drinking water and one in three lack improved sources of water sanitation. With this statistic, every year, significant public and private resources are invested in improving water quality, preserving water quantity, and protecting water as a natural resource in the North Central Region and Worldwide. With water quality and water related issues being a world-wide issue, education of our future leaders is critical. The goal of this project is to: 1.) determine curriculum being used for youth water education being taught in the North Central Region by land grant universities and partners in the region; 2.) identify curriculum that make youth knowledgeable, passionate and active in water related issues; 3.) identify placed-based education; 4.) find GAPS in program/curriculum either by age, stewardship or engagement. This analysis will explore and create partnerships critical to ensuring the success of youth water education throughout the region. The long-term, primary impact of this project is a solid base will be development for youth water education. Once the base is established, the ability to build up youth knowledge, passion and activity for water related issues can be accomplished.


Online Stormwater Core Course – Enhanced Course Development ($7,000) – led by Katie Pekarek (University of Nebraska-Lincoln) with supporting leadership from the University of Illinois, Iowa State University, the University of Minnesota, North Dakota State University, and Purdue University

  • Proposal Abstract: Excessive runoff, surface water generated after a rain or snow melt, may cause flooding and water quality degradation resulting in negative environmental and economic impacts. Water resources mangers and stormwater professionals need to understand how to adopt and maintain stormwater management practices to protect and improve water quality and environmental resources. Currently, there is no online curriculum for training these professionals on stormwater practice selection, identification, evaluation, installation, or maintenance. The Stormwater Practices and Maintenance Core Course is addressing this education gap through development of content for a five module, online course to aid stormwater professionals and educators in improving and optimizing stormwater operations. Course content and initial Moodle development is scheduled for completion in July 2017. The project co-directors propose to conduct a 2-day Stormwater Core Course Collaboration Workshop in the fall of 2017 with current North Central Region stormwater practitioners to create storytelling messaging, course resources, and activities. These innovative and engaging learning resources will provide content for a media developer to develop enhanced multimedia course content. The practitioners at the workshop will concurrently review and revise existing course content to inform the enhanced multi-media course content. Enhanced multi-media course content will facilitate learner engagement to help motivate new and early career stormwater practitioners and educators. This group of users will be surveyed to provide evaluation feedback to improve learner engagement and inform future iterations of the online course. Implementation of this course for stormwater professionals and educators will initially be targeted through Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System (MS4) programs. There are approximately 7,450 MS4s (EPA, 2017) which convey and discharge stormwater to a water(s) of the U.S. The course will help MS4s achieve permit compliance by meeting required education goals. Upon completion of this Enhanced Course Development project, new and early career stormwater professionals and educators will be empowered to use course information to improve stormwater practices and maintenance. This in turn protects and improves water quality and related co-benefits to generate environmental impact. Student graduates of the course will transition from new or early-career professionals to experienced professionals, who will grow the network of stormwater professionals and build capacity in the NCRWN to teach and engage in stormwater management. Enhanced multi-media content developed for the online course will be offered as stand-alone resources for use by educators. The meeting of workshop participants will increase connectivity between stormwater professionals and educators to grow the existing stormwater network.


Charting New Waters with Purpose – NCRWN Land Grant and Tribal College/University Collaborations Planning Grant Proposal ($7,000) – led by Dan Downing (University of Missouri) and Charles Barden (K-State) with supporting leadership from Michigan State University, South Dakota State University, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln

  • Proposal Abstract: In May of 2017, the NCRWN hosted its first summit specifically for the purpose of bringing together representatives from the 1862 state land grant institutions and the 1994 land grant institutions (the Tribal Colleges and Universities) in the North Central Region around the issue of water.  The Summit was hosted at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, with over 30 participants representing at least six different tribal institutions as well as other state universities and partner organizations.  As a result of this summit the door was opened for enhanced relationships among the participants and their respective institutions.  One of the products of the summit was a broad set of priority issues of mutual interest and benefit identified through facilitated group processes.  This application proposes to build upon the opportunities created during the summit by reaching out to selected attendees from the summit and other 1994s, asking them to serve as a core working group of 6-8 people from a mix of the institutions.  It is anticipated that the funding provided through this planning grant will be utilized for a maximum of two face-to-face planning meetings and multiple teleconferences as needed to move forward with planning and resource development. The face-to-face meeting(s) will help to develop trust and relationships among the working group members as well as facilitating the discussion regarding strategic direction, action items, and potential resource and funding cultivation.

The Issue of Clickbait and Exaggeration in Environmental Journalism

Humanity has 20 years to shape up or face mass extinction.  Sounds scary, right?  If this headline popped up on your news feed, it would be next-to-impossible to ignore your curiosity and not click.  However, once you dive into the article written by the New York Post, check a few sources, and compare them to other publications, you would discover that this headline is the epitome of the modern phenomena of clickbait.

The internet has been an instrumental tool in communicating and educating environmental issues to the ears of the masses.  However, with any internet entity comes the potential for clickbait, which – put simply – is hyperbolic (often false) content designed solely to manifest clicks.  Online environmental news is no stranger to the problematic consequences that come along with it.

Last October, Outside Magazine, the New York Post, The Independent and other media outlets released an “obituary” for the Great Barrier Reef, causing an backlash from both journalistic and environmental organizations.  These articles ignored the actual work, progress, and agreed-upon science about the reef’s health.  A CNN article written by Sophie Lewis simply titled “The Great Barrier Reef is Not Actually Dead” fired back quickly. Responding to the pseudo-death, Lewis stated, “there’s a difference between dead and dying.”  And that’s where the issue of clickbait and exaggeration lay.

Lewis’ piece criticized the carelessness and unsupported claims of the original post, citing prominent members of the scientific community who work tirelessly to help protect the reef.  Lewis stated that scientists are increasingly worried about exaggeration when it comes to sensitive topics like climate change.  As Lewis cites, “Professor John Pandolfi from the ARC Centre at the University of Queensland has expressed hope. ‘It is critically important now to bolster the resilience of the reef, and to maximize its natural capacity to recover.’”

Some might argue that making these bold, eye-catching claims are progressive and essential for environmental science to engage the public.  However, by over exaggerating and overlooking real science, true progressive action cannot be achieved.  Take a look at New York Magazine’s cover story, published just a few days ago.  “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells tells stories of imminent doomsday scenarios that will destroy us in a fiery blaze or a suffocating tidal wave.

Not unlike the backlash to the Great Barrier Reef “death” last year, the scientific community was quick to respond.  An article published by Climate Feedback employed 16 research and university scientists to dissect the New York Magazine piece, which came to the conclusion that the scientific credibility was low.  The climate professionals explained the dangers of overstating the science of our planet to the public.

There is a scientific consensus that our climate is undergoing rapid change. However, clickbaiting and over exaggerating a narrative of hopelessness is just as dangerous as ignoring the issues completely.

As scientists, educators, environment leaders, and conservation professionals, we need to hold our selves to a higher standard.

Washington Post journalists Michael E. Mann, Susan Joy Hassol and Tom Toles dissect the issue of “climate doomism” in their article responding to Wallace Wells’ piece.  They summarize the type of work and narratives environmental professionals need to do in their closing remarks:

“It is important to communicate both the threat and the opportunity in the climate challenge. Those paying attention are worried, and should be, but there are also reasons for hope. There is still time to avoid the worst outcomes, if we act boldly now, not out of fear, but out of confidence that the future is largely in our hands.”

Director Update: June 2017

Fish at the surface, gulping air and trying to escape the bloom. Photo courtesy of Tyler Tunney and the UW-Madison Center for Limnology.

In last month’s column, I wrote that Kansas is green this season. The same above average rainfall greening up the rolling hills of eastern Kansas is also greening up lakes and rivers across the Upper Midwest and causing alarming predictions for a large dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico this year.

Check out this image from the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Limnology. Is that the Caribbean, you ask? Looks like the marine blue of the tropics, you say. Nope, it’s the Yahara River, Madison Wisconsin, on June 16th, overwhelmed with blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria.  If you read the Center’s blog post and look at the pictures (caution: several disturbing photos of dead things) you will see why overwhelmed is an appropriate word.

At the other end of the Mississippi River, scientists estimate that we will see the third largest dead zone on record in the Gulf of Mexico, disrupting shrimp markets and the livelihoods and quality of life for many of our downstream neighbors.

Scientists estimate that the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone” will be the third largest in 32 years. Photo courtesy of Mark Schleifstein and the Times-Picayune.

In the Great Lakes Basin, NOAA and Heidelberg University predict that Lake Erie algae blooms will be of moderate severity in 2017, once again threatening the drinking water of approximately 11 million people.

We know that nitrogen and phosphorus from farmland and urban landscapes, relocated from land to water by heavy rain events, is leading to these dangerous, expensive, and sad events. Yes, sad – no one likes to see polluted water, dead fish, or hear parents telling children that they cannot go swimming on a hot summer day.

While it would be easy to get disheartened or default to a new, poorer status quo, constructive conversations about conditions like these can mobilize people around clear solutions like more perennial cover on our landscapes; taking unprofitable land out of agricultural production; increasing water use efficiency so less irrigation water is lost to lakes, reservoirs and streams; revitalizing our soil so that it holds more water and nutrients where they’re needed; and urban/rural partnerships for more cost effective nutrient management.  

It’s true that in some cases the systems we have in place do not support the best choices for water and the people that use it. We created those systems; together we can update them to reflect the new knowledge and new management systems of today.

If you would like to contribute ideas for the future of the North Central Region Water Network, feel free to send me a note at

Rebecca Power, Network Director

First Confirmed Snakehead Fish Caught in Mississippi Lake

June 8, 2017
JACKSON –  A Northern Snakehead Fish was caught in Lake Whittington, an oxbow lake of the Mississippi River in Bolivar County, by bow fishermen Brad Baugh and Bubba Steadman, of Cleveland, MS on June 5, 2017. They kept the fish, photographed it, and immediately contacted the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks (MDWFP).
“Snakeheads have been present in the White River Basin in Arkansas since 2008 and have been steadily expanding their range towards the Mississippi River,” says MDWFP Delta fisheries biologist Nathan Aycock. “The Mississippi River provides these fish with access to connected oxbows like Lake Whittington as well as the Yazoo and Big Black Rivers.” 
Northern Snakeheads are native to China, Russia, and Korea. Established populations have been found in Arkansas, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia where their impacts to native fish populations are unknown. Northern Snakeheads are typically found in shallow, backwater areas and can breathe air, which allows them to survive for extended periods of time out of the water.
Northern Snakeheads appear similar to Mississippi’s native Bowfin, also known as grinnel. MDWFP encourages anyone who thinks they catch a snakehead to keep the fish, photograph it, and call our office at 601- 432-2200. It is illegal to transport, offer for sale, or possess live snakeheads in Mississippi. For more information regarding fishing and invasive species in Mississippi, visit or call (601) 432-2200. Follow us on Facebook at or on Twitter at

Photos more credible, cartoons more persuasive

  • With all else identical in a brochure, when a cartoon is swapped for a photograph, the cartoon is more cognitively engaging.
  • However, photographs are believed to be more credible.
  • Using cartoons may be a more effective way to communicate difficult scientific concepts in the classroom as well as to a general audience.

URBANA, Ill. – If you’re creating a message to educate, inform, or persuade, don’t underestimate the power of a well-executed cartoon. A new study at the University of Illinois suggests if you’re trying to convince the public to change their stance on a topic such as wind energy, you may be more successful if you use a cartoon rather than a photograph.

“Photographs were shown to be more credible, but cartoons were more likely to change behavior,” says U of I agricultural communications professor Lulu Rodriguez who led the study. “A cartoon grabs people’s attention long enough to deliver the message. That’s what you need in today’s message-heavy atmosphere. Why not use a tool that has proven ability to cut through the others and inform people in a way that actually works?”

In the study, participants were shown one of two versions of the same set of brochures. Each set was designed to debunk a myth about wind energy, the intent being to give readers scientific information about wind energy and assuage their fears. Each pair of brochures was identical in design, text, color, size, etc. The only difference was that the originally designed brochures featured a beautiful, professional photograph of wind turbines, while the look-alike brochures created for the study swapped out the photograph with a cartoon.

“You have to spend more time with a cartoon to figure out the meaning of the illustrations, and the situation,” Rodriguez says. “People look at cartoons longer, so they’re more cognitively engaged with the cartoon. Usually it includes humor and people work hard at figuring out the punch line. The photos used to represent wind energy on the original brochures were just beautiful scenic shots of the turbine blades or a landscape dotted with turbines so people didn’t look at them as long.”

Interestingly, the respondents said the content was better in the cartoon brochures (even though the text was identical), but the credibility was lower than the brochures using photographs.

“It may be because of the more light-hearted approach of cartoons,” Rodriquez says. “Cartoons make a topic like wind energy, which may be a bit scary to people, more accessible. But this notion of credibility is a different issue. We teach students to be conversational in writing. Don’t put on your ‘tuxedo’ language. And yet, people associate big words with credibility.”

Rodriguez says the use of comics has already been shown to be effective in explaining scientific concepts and principles in high school chemistry classrooms. (Rodriguez is also the director of the agricultural communications program in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and the College of Media.) She says she has not seen the comparison of photos versus cartoons studied in non-classroom settings.

In addition to educational settings, the power of cartoons to persuade can be of value to agencies working to educate the public about a science-laden concept—one for which they would like to change opinion, intentions, or behaviors.

“My interest is in making science more accessible to the public,” Rodriguez says. “This study offers real recommendations to communicate science better to a general audience. Understanding the science helps get people past whatever might be controversial about a scientific breakthrough or innovation. The controversies usually arise out of a lack of understanding.”

In terms of wind energy, Rodriguez says, people worry about claims that the turbines kill birds, when in fact, cars kill more birds. “We kept hearing scientists say that people do not fully understand wind energy. So we thought, how can we deflect that misunderstanding?”

Rodriguez cites communicating about GMOs as another possible case in which incorporating cartoons may inform people.

“Most people don’t know about all the regulatory layers at the local and national level involved in producing GMOs. If you try to describe that for people in text, they may not get it or they may not be motivated to read lines and lines of words. Perhaps a cartoon showing safety regulations or the similarity of genetic engineering to natural crossing of plants would be more convincing,” she says.

“I have a colleague who actually did this to explain how they got the vitamin A into golden rice using a cartoonish infographic. Not very scientific—but people get it. It’s a lot easier to explain complex scientific concepts that way.”

Rodriguez admits that text and photos may be the easier route to take.

“Truth be told, this is easy to recommend, but cartoons and effective information graphics are difficult to create. You have to hire someone with real skills to do it. Making things easier to understand is a difficult thing to do,” she says. “And, when people hire an advertising agency to create a brochure for their product or cause, they may lean toward using photos because they convey prestige or credibility. It may be difficult to convince them to use a cartoon because they think it reduces the classiness of the brochure.”

The article, “The impact of comics on knowledge, attitude and behavioural intentions related to wind energy,” is published in an issue of the Journal of Visual Literacy. The research was conducted by Lulu Rodriguez, University of Illinois; and Xiao Lin, Quixey, San Jose.

Source: Lulu Rodriguez, 217-300-1045,
News writer: Debra Levey Larson, 217-244-2880,