BOONE — The Watauga County Center of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension held over 150 meetings, workshops, demonstrations, farm tours and other programs in 2018 to support area agriculture, food, health and nutrition.

The Watauga Cooperative Extension on March 5 delivered its annual “Report to the People” reviewing its work and accomplishments during the previous calendar year.

The Cooperative Extension is a project of North Carolina’s land grant institutions, N.C. State University and N.C. A&T University. Each university coordinates extension programs that work in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, as well as state and local governments, to enrich the lives, land and economy of North Carolinians. The Cooperative Extension offers programs and partnerships focused on agriculture and food, health and nutrition and 4-H youth development and delivers research-based solutions to local issues.

The Watauga County Center of the N.C. Cooperative Extension employs six staff members, including some who also work in neighboring counties.

The extension’s work over the past year including 475 hours of formal training for more than 3,600 participants, as well as 28,500 in-person and phone or email contacts. In addition, the extension’s agents provided formal certification and recertification training to over 220 landscape contractors and licensed pesticide applicators.

Eddy Labus, agriculture extension agent for field crops and livestock, provided on-farm and classroom livestock programs that included topics such as forage selection and grazing, pasture improvement, breeding and genetics.

“Programs offered by our livestock agent have consistently led to higher prices and/or sell weights on cattle for cattle producers,” the extension said.

Labus provided grant-writing assistance to two producers who secured $12,000 in grants to improve their livestock operations.

“We do work with growers to help identify some other funding sources that can help them increase their productivity,” said Watauga Extension Director Jim Hamilton.

According to Hamilton, Labus also fielded a lot of questions about small-scale livestock production, including poultry and rabbits.

Richard Boylan, the area specialized agent for agriculture, serves both the Watauga and Ashe County extension centers. Boylan offered nearly 70 hours of formal programs, seminars and workshops to 600 specialty crop and organic producers on such topics and practices as cover crops, blueberry and fruit tree pruning, garlic, broccoli, pest prevention, ginger and turmeric production, vegetable gardening and the Food Safety Management Act.

Alluding to the wet conditions caused by a record year for rainfall, Boylan said, “Supporting food growers in an unpredictable year was a big priority for 2018.”

Boylan also helped three area producers secure grant funding, and he was on hand for a hemp production meeting in January that drew about 250 people interested in the opportunities presented by the newly legal crop — one of the largest attendances ever for an extension event.

“We went to Family Central, we started taking reservations, we ran out of every chair that Family Central and Ashe Extension had, we rented from Jefferson Rent-All and we had standing room only,” Boylan said.

Though Boylan cautioned that hemp might not be the “miracle crop” that some think it is, he indicated that market demand remains strong.

The extension also presented Master Gardener classes to 19 new trainees and advanced Master Gardener classes to 30 members in 2018, and Master Gardeners contributed more than 1,600 volunteer hours to the community. The Master Gardener program is led by horticulture agent Paige Patterson, who also offered recertification training to 30 certified landscape contractors.

Patterson participated in the elongate hemlock scale research project to determine infestation potential on other species — “an important issue for the export of our Christmas trees to other states,” the extension said.

Margie Mansure, nutrition and foods agent, served on the state local food advisory committee and worked to promote local foods, including the Watauga County Food Council’s “High Country Grown” marketing campaign to connect consumers with local producers and restaurants who support local farms. About 10 restaurants and businesses are certified by High Country Grown at the gold, silver or bronze level for their use of local food products, Mansure said.

For more information about High Country Grown, visit highcountrygrown.org.

Mansure, who also works with the Caldwell County extension center, offered school nutrition and food preparation and preservation programming reaching 1,600 adults and children.

The extension secured $7,000 from the Watauga County Tourism Development Authority for marketing efforts for choose-and-cut Christmas trees and agritourism.

“Due to marketing efforts, tree growers reported an overall increase of almost 50 percent in 2018 sales,” the extension said.

About $2,000 of that amount was designated for development of the Visit NC Farms app, an agritourism collaboration between the state and Watauga, Ashe and Avery counties.

“We’re creating a High Country region,” Hamilton said. “Everything from vineyards to restaurants to pumpkin patches to choose-and-cuts to farmers markets to the Food Hub ... We’re excited to get that going.”

Hamilton said the extension is working with Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture on the app, which they hope to launch by June 1.

Hamilton continued wild-simulated ginseng production workshops and secured a grant for a two-year project to produce a North Carolina ginseng seed source, which will begin this year.

Finally, the 63rd annual Farm City Banquet held in November drew over 250 participants and recognized 12 local farmers and citizens for their contributions to the community and the local agricultural economy.

The N.C. Cooperative Extension conducted a needs assessment in 2017-18 via surveys and focus groups. The assessment found that 85 percent of respondents were somewhat or extremely satisfied with extension programs and services.

The assessment identified the highest priorities as farmland preservation, protection of air and water quality, safety of the food supply, assisting beginning farmers, strengthening the local food system and promoting economic development. Priorities identified for youth and families were access to affordable healthy food, youth development, STEM literacy and reducing obesity.

For more information about the Watauga County Cooperative Extension, visit watauga.ces.ncsu.edu or call (828) 264-3061. The office is located at 971 W. King St. in Boone.

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