10/11/11 — County will hire new ag agent; gets state funds

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County will hire new ag agent; gets state funds

By Steve Herring
Published in News on October 11, 2011 1:46 PM

Wayne County Cooperative Extension Service Director Kevin Johnson joked Monday that he has been "counting down the days" until he could turn over his agronomist/field crop agent duties to someone else.

Johnson might not have as many days left to count as he and county officials once feared. The new agent could be on board by the first of the year.

"It is good news," he said.

The position is considered so vital to the county's $763 million agriculture and agri-business industry that at one point county commissioners explored the idea of picking up the position in the county budget.

However, they backed off fearing that doing so would set a dangerous precedent that the state would seize on to pass along even more costs to the county. Commissioners did agree to send a resolution to N.C. State University officials and local legislators voicing support of the position and explaining its importance to the county.

County Manager Lee Smith said the position was "needed desperately here." He said he had received as many calls from the farm community over the issue than any he had in his 10 years as manager.

Smith argued that one person could not run an organization then go out in the field and be an agronomist. It was a formula for failure, he said.

"The field crops agent is extremely important to our local farmers," Smith said Monday afternoon. "This position aids farmers in many decisions as it relates to crop production and with helping our farmers be more successful.

"Wayne County appreciates N.C. State University for making the decision to move forward on this position despite state budget cuts. It is obvious that the university sees the significance of this position to the farmers and the agri-business community."

Field crops contribute more than $120 million annually to the county's economy. Wayne County is the third-largest tobacco producing county in the United States and is a leading county in the production of wheat, soybeans, sweet potatoes, corn, peanuts, and cotton.

Extension agents are members of the faculty of North Carolina State University. The agent has primary responsibility for planning, executing, and evaluating county Extension programs within assigned areas of program responsibility.

A bachelor's degree in agronomy or related area of science is required and a related master's degree is preferred for the job. Applicants must have a valid driver's license and reliable personal transportation must be maintained.

It had been unclear, until recently, whether or not the position would be filled. However, the advertisement first posted Sept. 29 will continue until the end of the month.

Johnson said that someone could be in place as early as Dec. 1, but that a more realistic date would be Jan. 1.

"Once closed basically they (N.C. State) will go through the applications and send us so many and we will go from there," Johnson said. "We will probably interview about four."

Johnson said when he joined the county Extension office in January 2005 there were two field agents, but as people left, it was consolidated into one position.

Johnson had filled that slot until six months ago when he was appointed director following the retirement of Howard Scott. However, Johnson has continued to perform the duties of both offices.

Most recently, following Hurricane Irene, Johnson was in the field helping farmers evaluate their storm-damaged crops.

"I was helping people determine their situations and what might needed to be done," he said.

Johnson expects he will have to continue some of those duties for a while even after a new field crop agent is hired -- particularly if the person does not have a lot of experience. Also, Johnson will have to introduce the new agent to the agriculture community, officials and public.