COLUMBIA, Mo. — Lifelong learning. It’s an essential part of MU Agriculture and Environment Extension’s goal of doubling the value of Missouri agriculture by 2030 while sustaining the state’s natural resources.
When Ron Brown was approached to check out University of Missouri Extension’s Master Gardener 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.
But Brown wasn’t sure what to expect since he hadn’t been in a classroom in years.
“After the first session, I realized that the program was a lot more intense than I thought it was going to be,” he 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 mission of the Master Gardener program is “helping others learn to grow,” and Brown has taken that mission to heart. “The program provided a great community feeling, and I met so many good people through it,” he said. “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 MU Extension promoting lifelong learning among Missourians.
“Cultivating an environment of lifelong learning is central to what we do,” said Eric Bailey, assistant professor 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 MU 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 Ph.D., 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 is a prime example of how learning never truly ends. Brown, 70, has worked in gardens throughout his life. During his time in the Master Gardener program, the Ferguson Farmers Market asked him about starting a community garden next to the 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 ground was broken on the new community garden, UCP (United Cerebral Palsy) Heartland contacted Brown about gardening opportunities for people with cerebral palsy, most 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,” he 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 released its strategic plan in 2019, the college identified “Empowering Missourians” as one of six strategic priorities. Essential to that priority is creating lifelong learning opportunities through signature extension programs such as Master Gardeners.
“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 for several years as an agricultural engineering specialist for Boone County before recently joining the MU Division of Food Systems and Bioengineering. He teaches students about precision agriculture, 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 says a big part of his job is 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.”
Working as both a field specialist and classroom instructor, Bailey has learned to adapt his teaching style to his audience.
“A rigid academic presentation isn’t going to always translate to farmers and producers,” he said. “I try to share my knowledge through stories and practical situations.” Every operation is different and faces a unique set of challenges, he notes. Understanding that is important to being able to help farmers and producers identify problems and working with them on solutions.
“For students, you have to show them why a challenge matters since they may not have the proper context,” he continued. “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 working with extension specialists can see firsthand how they encourage 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.
Schreier is conducting her graduate research with Kevin Bradley, a professor of plant sciences and MU Extension weed scientist, and she has witnessed his ability to teach audiences of all ages.
“Dr. Bradley has the unique ability to teach every audience in a way they understand,” she said. “He is great at teaching both in the classroom as well as in the field.” His teaching methods “bring science to farmers and industry representatives as well as academicians, depending on the needs.”
CAFNR celebrated its 150th anniversary last year, but, alongside MU Extension, it is focusing not just on its proud legacy but also its bold future.
Bailey is excited to be part of that future. “Doubling the value of agriculture by 2030 is a big goal,” he said. “I relish the opportunity to work with all Missourians to make that happen.”
— University of Missouri Extension
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