Conference introduces MSU officials to locals

MARQUETTE – Geographic isolation doesn’t have to be an obstacle to getting tips on pruning a fruit trees in the Upper Peninsula.

Michigan State University conducted a get-together for MSU officials and local natural resources and food professionals this week at the Ramada Inn.

The event gave professionals an opportunity to connect with MSU’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources as well as MSU Extension, which provides resources in areas such as food, health and gardening to consumers throughout the state.

Tom Coon, director of MSU Extension, said it has a presence in every county.

“What that means is that we’re accessible and ready to help in any way possible,” Coon said.

Its website,, shows what programs are available. Information is available on topics such as food preservation, organic agriculture, physical activity and pest management.

Coon said a new feature expected to be released sometime in 2014 is the Find An Expert button in which web users can find a person with knowledge in a particular area, either in Michigan or another state. For example, a person wanting information on tomato seedlings in May and canning those tomatoes in August can tap into this resource.

Also, if someone’s performing a Google search about cooking a turkey safely, chances are that search will bring up the Extension website, Coon said.

“We actually get a pretty high rating on Google because we have so much content,” he said.

The Find An Expert search ties in with the digital age, he said.

“That’s the way people ask questions today,” Coon said.

Also planned is an online course catalog.

Challenges still exist, however. Extension staffing in the state is steady, Coon said, but Fred Poston, dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, acknowledged there still needs to be more agents in the field.

“I think it’s too lean,” Poston said.

John Baker, associate director with MSU AgBioResearch, said Michigan has many commodities, which makes it challenging to serve all of them, particularly in the light of budget cuts over the last two fiscal cycles. That means being creative in the way people are hired, he said.

“You may have to be a jack-of-all-trades,” Baker said.

Coon also pointed out there is no consumer horticulture educator in the Upper Peninsula.

“We’re at a point now we’ve got to address that,” he said.

As an example he cited the September Smart Gardening conference in Marquette, which had a high turnout. There participants learned about practical aspects of lawn and garden care and other topics.

Such educational programs are needed in the U.P., according to Coon.

“But I think we’re at a spot now where we will be able to fill that gap,” he said.

Baker said the U.P. Research and Extension Center in Chatham was reviewed less than a year ago, with most recommendations being implemented.

However, the U.P.’s geographical distance from downstate was an issue, he said.

“The thing we had to overcome, the bottom line, the problem always has been distance,” Baker said.

He noted a $100,000 endowment will help support MSU faculty visiting the site.

The center also can deal with issues specifically related to the northern part of the state, such as its soils, which Baker said can be used in a beneficial way.

“These poor soils can really be supportive of forage production,” he said.

A focus continues to be agricultural and biological research.

“We’re supposed to be the ones to take a risk and look at a new ways,” Baker said.

A new staff member, Ashley McFarland, was added in May to organize and coordinate research.

Connecting with young people, too, is a part of fostering future growth in natural resources and agriculture.

Kelly Millenbah, associate dean and director of academic and student affairs with the MSU College of Natural Resources, said if her office can connect with a student early, there is a higher chance that student will attend MSU.

That also involves figuring out better mechanisms on getting the word out about what the college offers. For example, there’s a belief the fish and wildlife field is “hooks and bullets,” she said.

“If you’re in the discipline, that’s a pretty narrow view of what we look like,” Millenbah said.

She said students who are in 4-H also are more likely to stay in agriculture-related fields.

Coon said, “4-Hers are twice as likely to go on to higher education, and once they’re in, they’re more likely to go to MSU. They’re more likely to go into the sciences.”

Abbey Palmer, special projects coordinator with the Marquette Food Co-op, was a participant in the conference.

“I learned a lot about what MSU is thinking in terms of its views and goals,” Palmer said.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is