Lifelong learning. It’s an essential part of Agriculture and Environment Extension’s goal of doubling the value of Missouri agriculture by 2030 while sustaining the state’s natural resources. It’s a bold goal where lifelong learning meets real people.
When Ron Brown was approached to check out the Missouri Master Gardener Extension Program, he thought the opportunity to expand his already extensive gardening knowledge would only help as he worked in his home garden and a community garden in Ferguson, Mo.
Brown wasn’t sure what to expect since he hadn’t been in a classroom in several years.
“After the first session, I realized that the program was a lot more intense than I thought it was going to be,” Brown said. “We went deep into plant anatomy, soil, water, light and the different types of plants. I was 67 years old when I first started the program, so I hadn’t been in a classroom setting for a bit. I hadn’t done memorization of terms in years. I figured out some cues, though, that really helped.
“The program provided a great community feeling, and I met so many good people through it. I’m always happy to share the knowledge that I gained through the program with anyone who wants to learn more.”
The Missouri Master Gardener Extension Program is just one example of how University of Missouri Extension specialists and experts work to cultivate and promote an atmosphere of lifelong learning among Missourians. Those specialists and experts work with Missourians of all ages.
“Cultivating an environment of lifelong learning is central to what we do,” said Eric Bailey, assistant professor in the Division of Animal Sciences and state beef Extension specialist. “Within Extension, our grand challenge is to expand those opportunities and showcase how learning never really ends.”
Keeping Missourians engaged is a key part of hitting Agriculture and Environment Extension’s goal of doubling the value of agriculture in Missouri by 2030 while sustaining the state’s natural resources.
“When I finished my PhD, I felt like I was on top of the mountain,” Bailey said. “I soon realized that the mountain I scaled at that point was just the molehill at the base of the mountain of knowledge. The world moves quickly, and our mission is to keep Missourians up to speed.”
Brown serves as a prime example of how learning never truly ends. Brown, who is now 70 years old, has worked in gardens throughout his life. Halfway through his time in the Missouri Master Gardener Program, the director of the Ferguson Farmers’ Market reached out to him about starting a community garden next to the farmers’ market.
“I was able to incorporate what I already knew, plus what I was currently learning, into the new community garden,” Brown said. “It was exciting to take all of that knowledge and share it.”
After breaking ground on the new community garden, UCP (United Cerebral Palsy) Heartland reached out to Brown about gardening opportunities for individuals with cerebral palsy, the majority of whom are in wheelchairs. Brown, who spent his career as a carpenter, went right to work.
“The city has been really good to work with for these projects, which is helpful,” Brown said. “I have been able to get the windows out of houses that they’re tearing down, and those windows are what I’ve built a greenhouse out of. The roof is made out of used shower doors, and I’ve used discarded tires to build retaining walls and flower gardens. People drop off stuff and ask what they can do with it. I tell them I’ll find a way to use it.”
When the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR) released its strategic plan in 2019, one of the priority areas centered on Empowering Missourians, like Brown. Underneath that strategic priority, there is a goal of creating lifelong learning opportunities by developing signature Extension programs, similar to the Missouri Master Gardener Program. Those opportunities don’t only extend to Missourians off campus – MU Extension and CAFNR are focused on creating lifelong learners in the classroom.
“Working with our citizens of all ages and helping move them forward is our ultimate goal,” said Kent Shannon, an assistant teaching professor of agricultural systems technology. “Learning is a two-way street, though. While we do have a certain expertise, it’s important for us to listen to the constituents we serve. We can learn so much from our fellows Missourians, as well as our students on campus.”
Shannon worked as a field specialist in agricultural engineering, serving Boone County, for several years before recently joining the Division of Food Systems and Bioengineering. He teaches Mizzou students about precision agriculture, on-farm research, use of drones in agriculture, pesticide application technologies and agriculture machinery management.
“Having experience as a field specialist has really helped me in the classroom,” Shannon said. “I’m bringing something that’s more than just the textbook. I’ve worked with Missourians for years, and some of those individuals really have seen it all. My discussions with them have been so enlightening for me and helped me be a better specialist.”
Bailey also works closely with students on the MU campus, along with his Extension responsibilities. A big part of his focus is on helping students develop a lifelong passion for learning.
“I really just want to cultivate passion and interest,” Bailey said. “I work hard to give the students real-life examples that they can build off of. My hope is that as they advance in their fields, they will continue to be active learners who help others learn as well.”
Depending on his audience, Bailey switches between teaching styles.
“A rigid academic presentation isn’t going to always translate to farmers and producers,” Bailey said. “I try to share my knowledge through stories and practical situations. The information I share isn’t going to be balanced to the third decimal point. I focus on relating to them. Every operation is a little bit different, and we all face different challenges. I want to help them identify their problem and work together to come up with a solution.
“For students, you have to show them why a challenge matters since they may not have the proper context. I want to make sure that they not only understand why we’re doing something, but that they can also help teach others about what we’re doing.”
Students who work with Extension specialists not only benefit from their expertise in the classroom, those students get to see how specialists encourage an atmosphere of lifelong learning.
“MU Extension has created an involved learning system, which has allowed me to network with several people involved in Missouri agriculture,” said Haylee Schreier, a graduate student in plant, insect and microbial sciences. “Extension allows the ability to continue education, whether that be in a classroom or on a farm.”
Schreier is conducting her graduate research with Kevin Bradley, a professor in the Division of Plant Sciences and MU Extension weed scientist. Bradley works with Missourians across the state on potential weed issues, and Schreier said his ability to teach audiences of all ages has been important for her to see.
“Dr. Bradley is great at teaching both in the classroom, as well as in the field,” Schreier said. “His adaptive teaching methods bring science to farmers and industry representatives, as well as academians depending on the needs. Dr. Bradley has the unique ability to teach every audience in a way they understand.
“I strive to learn every day, and I see that continuing into my future career. Learning new skills to help farmers solve their problems in the field is a goal I hope to reach. As agriculture is continuing to change, I hope to evolve around these changes in order to help make agriculture more sustainable.”
CAFNR celebrated its 150th anniversary last year and as the college, alongside MU Extension, moves forward there is a focus not only on its golden legacy, but also its bold future.
“Doubling the value of agriculture by 2030 is a big goal, and it’s exciting to be part of that mission,” Bailey said. “I relish the opportunity to work with all Missourians to make that happen. Being part of something of this nature is incredibly rewarding, and I’m excited to see where we go from here.”