Perspectives Online

Photo by Becky Kirkland

Ask College of Agriculture and Life Sciences'

Associate Dean Jon Ort what has distinguished North Carolina Cooperative Extension throughout its 92-year history, and he'll say "people"- intelligent, hard-working and, above all, caring people committed to helping others make changes.

It was a point he made consistently last spring as he traveled to seven North Carolina cities to talk with employees about their role in shaping the future of Extension and of the state. At each stop, he mentioned a news story about Orange County agricultural agent Karen McAdams.

"Given a chance to serve" was the headline, and although it was a relatively small story in a relatively small newspaper, the Chapel Hill News, it said a good deal about the quiet and often behind-the-scenes ways that Cooperative Extension agents like McAdams work to bring knowledge from university campuses to communities.

At a December meeting in Schley, McAdams was awarded the Orange-Durham Cattlemen's Association's Lifetime Achievement Award, and the reporter covering the event noted that "several speakers praised McAdams for helping others and for the kind and gentle way she talks to people - day or night and even on weekends as her job demands."

McAdams responded modestly, saying she was grateful to have had the opportunity to serve families, farmers and young people through Cooperative Extension for 26 years.

Her association with the organization stretches back to her days as a 4-H'er, when her family settled on a farm in Pinnacle, in the shadow of Pilot Mountain in northwestern North Carolina. From there, her father commuted to Fayetteville to his job in the U.S. Army, while Karen and her two sisters learned about farming, helping raise beef cows, horses and tobacco on the family's 60-acre farm.

She went on to earn a bachelor's degree in animal science at N.C. State University, later earning a master's in the same field. She "got the bug," as she puts it, to be an agent while she worked as a 4-H intern with a Wayne County livestock agent. She saw working with Extension as a way to bring together her passion for helping people, animals and agriculture.

Though she was determined to work with Cooperative Extension, it was a time when women agricultural agents were rare.

Karen McAdams' ongoing dedication to service is a shining example for Cooperative Extension's efforts in its change management and marketing initiative.
Photo by Becky Kirkland
"I felt I'd have a better chance of being hired if I had more agricultural experience, so I went to work for a Robeson County hog farm where I managed the farrowing houses for a year and a half," she said.

In 1980, McAdams signed on as a livestock agent in Durham County, becoming the state's fourth woman agricultural agent. "They stuck their necks out to hire me," she recalled.

Three years later, she took a position based in neighboring Orange County, where there was a larger agricultural industry. She now serves livestock and crop producers in both counties and contributes to the 4-H program through her involvement in livestock shows and related programs.

"You get to see these kids grow up, and that's rewarding," she said.

Over the years, McAdams has also seen her county do a bit of growing, as well. And that growth has brought with it challenges for the agricultural industry she serves.

Orange County's population has doubled in the past 40 years, particularly around Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Subdivision growth has spilled over into rural agricultural communities in the county's northern and southwestern reaches as well, altering the landscape and taking with it open space, environmental quality and traditional ways of life.

"If Orange County was all houses, it wouldn't be nearly as good a place to live," she said. "It sort of grieves me to see 100 houses go in on a farm where I've worked with the people."

For neighboring farmers and for those who've moved in, there are often challenges, McAdams said.

"It's hard to farm on a road with lots of traffic. And for the people living close to you, who aren't used to what it's like on a farm, it can be hard smelling chicken litter that's been spread on a field or hearing a cow hollering all night," she said.

McAdams sees it as part of her job to help farmers cope with the challenges and to ensure that those who live nearby understand the value of agriculture.

With her boss, County Extension Director Fletcher Barber, other agricultural agents and county commissioners, McAdams helps host a county agricultural summit each year to help the entire community gain both an appreciation for the issues facing farmers as well as knowledge of agriculture's role in sustaining the economy and maintaining a safe, secure and nutritious food supply.

The Extension faculty in Orange County has also been involved in the county's efforts to protect farmland, open space and environmental quality through the creation of agricultural districts and conservation easements. Thus far, nearly 2,000 acres have been protected.

While rapid population growth presents challenges to farmers and their communities, it also can create opportunities. And McAdams works to ensure that farmers are taking advantage of them through new markets and new enterprises.

She has, for example, worked with farmers who are selling pasture-raised poultry and pork directly to suburbanites who want to know precisely where their food is coming from. And she's seen one entrepreneurial farmer grow and package corn for sale at garden centers for people who want to feed squirrels and deer.

Such entrepreneurship is critical to the future of farming in Orange County.

"The best way to keep farmland," she said, "is to keep farmers profitable."

To that end, McAdams works long days and frequent weekends. She says the biggest challenge that she and other agents face is "having enough hours in your day. There are always more ideas of things to do than time to do them. You have to try to balance the need to develop educational programs while at the same time making personal farm visits and answering phone calls."

While she can't point to a "typical" workday, she said she usually spends part of her day in the office and the rest visiting farmers.

She may talk to a beef cattle producer addressing waste management issues, a horse owner needing advice on pastures, a lawyer or doctor who's never farmed and yet wants to try it part-time, someone trying to get rid of aquatic weeds in a pond and someone trying to figure out the best way to market products grown on the farm. Recently, she's spent time working with specialists and agents to help a farmer weigh the risks and benefits of raising freshwater prawns.

It was through such an on-farm visit that McAdams met her husband, Howard McAdams Jr. They have two children: Callie, who, like her mother, is pursuing an animal science degree at N.C. State, and Elizabeth, an 11th grader.

On weekends, they share work on an Efland farm that has been part of Howard's family since the late 1800s. The farm is also home to a 125-pair commercial cow-calf operation, and they have some sheep.

While tobacco had long been the farm's mainstay - as it has been for some 175 Orange County producers - changes in government programs led the McAdamses to diversify in 2001 to a number of other crops. They are producing strawberries, flowers, squash, cucumbers, field peas, collards, cauliflower and more.

As a part-time farmer, some of what McAdams teaches during workshops and in one-on-one visits comes from direct experience with agricultural production and marketing.

She also works diligently to stay up-to-date on the latest trends and research related to agriculture. Being successful at passing that information along to clients requires more than just book-smarts, she said.

As she pointed out to the Chapel Hill News reporter, "Somebody said, 'People don't care how much you know unless they know how much you care.'"

And such caring has been at the heart of Extension since its inception - something McAdams has been reminded of as she has read the narrative and photographic accounts left by one of her predecessors, agricultural agent Don Matheson.

She finds in his accounts of working through the Great Depression, through World War II and up until 1960 some of the same themes that Extension administrators have stressed during recent discussions about the importance of working across disciplines and traditional program boundary lines to address complex, contemporary issues related to the economy, the environment and the quality of life in North Carolina.

"It's interesting to read about his work and how much it changed over the years. He talked about his work with Grade B and A dairies and milk cooperatives, and the importance of home economics work that helped farm families do such things as make mattresses and control bedbugs," she said.

"We have always helped people deal with change, and that will continue to be what Extension's all about. Today, there are a lot of dedicated Extension agents willing and able to help - family and consumer science agents who are helping families sort out the new Medicare regulations or working with families and businesses on food safety issues, and 4-H agents who work with children of very diverse backgrounds.

"Even for people who aren't familiar with Cooperative Extension, we've got a lot of offer," she said. "To homeowners and families I'd say, 'Take advantage of what we are doing. It all fits together to help families.'"