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100th Annual Meeting and Professional Improvement Conference of the National Association of County Agricultural Agents

Prepared Remarks
July 13, 2015

It is a pleasure being here with all of you today in the great state of South Dakota.

So, picture this: Back in West Virginia, there is a place called Monroe County nestled in the southeastern corner of the state.

The old joke there is that if you leave your car door unlocked, you will come back to a bag of zucchini on your seat.

The produce there is that plentiful, as are the people and their generosity.

This abundance of fruits, vegetables and meats in a county of 20,000 cattle and 12,000 humans meant a physical farmers market for local farmers to sell their goods was a waste of time.

Meanwhile, 133 miles away, in the state capital of Charleston, there were cooks wanting fresh vegetables and locally raised meat. And of course, you have the hipsters who are into the “eat local” initiatives.

Our West Virginia University Extension, which works with small farms and farmers markets around West Virginia as part of its many agricultural programs, was able to connect seller with buyer by creating an Online Farmers Market, in addition to weekly or bi-weekly delivery service for customers.

Based on what I just told you, think about how far we have come.

We have gone from families setting up a table along the road trying to sell his luscious tomatoes and cabbages—to the fact that now those same families can just box up whatever produce or meat a consumer desires ordered through an iPhone app.

This online farm market is a new concept to most people in West Virginia, and many farmers were unsure how their product would translate to the online world cluttered with hashtags and memes.

So it all started with simple spreadsheets. A group of Charleston customers who showed interest filled out their meat and produce request on a spreadsheet and emailed it to the market manager, who contacted farmers on what to bring and for whom.

The program quickly evolved into a website where customers can log in, select items the farmers have available, and order their groceries for the week.

And, I was not exaggerating earlier when I mentioned an iPhone app.

There is, in fact, an app for both iPhone and Android devices. (Now I have another use for my iPhone besides talking selfies!)

Today, this online Monroe Farm Market has one person who drives product from the various farmers the 133 miles to Charleston.

The driver, Dan Copeland, along with his wife Jennifer, owns Indian Creek Farm. Before the online market, the couple did not have enough customers to purchase their lamb, peppers and goat’s milk soap.

Now they do.

To me, that epitomizes the role of Extension in the evolution of a modern American land-grant university.

Through our University Extension Service, we helped connect the farmer with the consumer. The convenience—and supporting West Virginia farmers—is paramount to our mission.

Let me give you another example of what we are doing at West Virginia University, with the help of our extraordinary Extension faculty and staff. (I apologize, but I like to brag about what we do.)

Our University Extension Service oversees the statewide 4-H program. More than 80,000 West Virginia youths benefit from learning activities such as agricultural field days, camping and science programs.

Science? In 4-H?

Yes. But that should not surprise you.

Science has always been a part of 4-H, but we have evolved by creating new opportunities for learning and discovery.

Our hope is to spark a young person’s interest in science or math at a camp or in a club, which will then continue into college and career paths.

Some of the opportunities presented include underwater robotics competitions; measuring pH in local streams; solar-powered cars; and even flying quadcopter drones.

I wish there were quadcopter drones when I was in 4-H. All we had were ant farms and a couple of sticks.

One of the true gems of West Virginia University is our canopy tour—a network of four ziplines—that is the first of its kind owned and operated at a university.

At this Canopy Tour, teens get to ride the ziplines, scale an aerial bridge and rappel down giant oak trees.

Sounds like fun and games, but it is much more than that.

The experience blends sport, science and high spirits with discussions of Newton’s laws of motion, gravitational acceleration, friction and velocity.

And while an outdoor canopy tour may not be associated with the traditional view of 4-H and Extension, emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math—otherwise known as STEM disciplines—have become more the norm in the 4-H world than the exception.

For many people, 4-H is a program associated with farming interests. That is true. We will forever remain fans of the farm.

But we are also providing programs that meet the needs and interests of urban and suburban kids, too.

The 4-H STEM programs are one example of a 21st Century Extension Service that fulfills the vision of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914. And we are fulfilling the vision of the future of Extension.

Extension, my friends, is an idea that has stood the test of time. For 100 years, Extension has been helping land-grant universities keep pace with change and finding new ways to serve citizens.

Now, as we launch its second century, Extension has incredible potential to help America solve its most pressing problems, from producing a safe food supply, to promoting responsible energy use, to training first responders.

The civic sense that America needs can come only from a common educational effort.

As president of a land-grant university, it is especially crucial for me to be on the ground eating at the neighborhood diners or visiting the various 4-H camps across the state myself.

When I returned to West Virginia University in 2014, I set out to visit all 55 counties of the state—not only to reacquaint myself with West Virginia, but to see our state’s challenges first-hand.

I am traveling our state again this summer—and I will the next, and the next.

I want to visit with our state’s citizens again—to look into their eyes, to shake their hand, to wrap my arms around them.

Our tour last year was not a one-off. We will continue to be invested in our communities as long as we remain a land-grant institution. Our service to them never ends.

I swung by the county fairs and talked with young people who were saving for college by raising and selling their animals.

I popped into 4-H camps, where children were learning everything from weaving baskets to making sushi.

I met county commissioners, mayors, board of education members, county clerks, farmers, teachers, parents and grandparents.

In my travels, I realized that West Virginia—and perhaps many of you can attest this to your own states—is not necessarily a state of big, bustling, metropolitan cities. Nor are we a state of big businesses. Rather, we are a state of big ideas.

And it is a network of small businesses and small communities that create those big opportunities and big ideas.

Traveling and talking to people also helps remind both the University and the state of the powerful bond that unites us.

And, as I saw very clearly all over my state—Extension is the glue that cements that bond.

I am sure that rings true for many of you here today.

Simply put, our land-grant universities belong to the people. And land-grant universities have a responsibility to empower each and every citizen of their state with the ability to rise higher.

In West Virginia, we have an Extension office in every county. That is 55 total.

As someone who has spent 20 years leading land-grant universities, and 35 years as a University resident, I believe that the way West Virginia University is redefining engagement for the 21st century can serve as a national model for connecting universities and their constituents.

While many of the nation’s Cooperative Extension offices still reside in university agricultural programs, West Virginia University Extension is an autonomous unit, and its experts have the freedom and expectations to collaborate with educators from across all university disciplines.

It is that collaborative power that enables Extension to reach out so effectively.

For all of us, it is vital that we help position Extension toward one, simple calling: To improve people’s lives.

To do that, we must put aside personal agendas, break down silos and work side-by-side toward that goal.

This means professors and officials in academia leaving their labs and cozy offices to work hand-in-hand with the farmers knee-deep in dirt.

This means taking our world-class engineers and researchers and having them collaborate with volunteer firefighters and coal miners in the rural communities.

This means merging technology with tradition. Much like the online farmers market concept.

This means changing the symbol of the University from the ivory tower to the helping hand.

This is what Extension is all about.

As members of the Extension initiative, we have an opportunity—and a responsibility—to move America forward.

Think of everything you and your colleagues are already doing for your state and local communities.

Then think of what we can accomplish if we work together even more closely and effectively.

I have seen your work. I know you have great ideas, great talents and a great passion for what you do.

You understand the importance of community. Indeed, service is the rent we pay to live on this planet.

Americans are crying out for new ideas and effective leadership like never before. That is why I am committed to elevating Extension and its service role even further.

My county tours remind me that West Virginia’s most critical problems require the broadest possible solutions.

Across the country, Extension Services and land-grant universities are uniquely positioned to help us deliver those solutions.

Thank you.