June 23, 2011

When the economy went south, it hurt. Before that, the tobacco buyout changed the look of much of rural Kentucky and Tennessee. Over the years towns shrunk, businesses dried up and families often left for better opportunities elsewhere. What's true here is true throughout the country when it comes to rural development. Cooperative Extension personnel, however, are determined to stop the trends and help communities develop sustainable business prospects.

Extension agents, specialists and administrators from five states recently gathered at Pine Mountain State Resort Park for the 2nd annual Ken-Tenn Institute for Sustainable Development. They came together to exchange ideas and share success stories. Originally geared toward Kentucky and Tennessee, this year's event included extension agents and specialists from Colorado, West Virginia and North Carolina as well.

"It was great," said Alison Davis, director of the Community Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky in the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. "We covered topics related to agriculture, fine arts, youth entrepreneurship and planned tours in the region highlighting successes in these areas. We tried to be program specific for the agents, but also showed the need for a community development philosophy."

Davis, who co-chaired the event with Michael Wilcox, University of Tennessee assistant professor in agricultural and natural resource economics, said agents were exposed to the full range of community and economic development programs being carried on in each of the five states that participated. Over the 2 1/2 days of meetings, they formed partnerships that the chairs hope will last beyond the conference.

Jimmy Henning, associate dean and director of the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service, spoke during the conference's opening night get-together.

"What do you see when you drive across Kentucky? You see green, trees, farms, diversity and a lot of communities with need," he said. "We are so locally connected. That is what is essential about what we do."

Henning pointed out that healthy communities touch on many facets of life.

"If eight out of 10 farmers have to have off-farm employment, if we don't have healthy communities, we don't have agriculture," he said.

UT Extension state program leader for Agriculture, Natural Resources and Resource Development, Robert Burns, agreed.

"These kinds of opportunities mean the difference between being able to stay on your land or leaving," he said.

It was obvious during the sharing session that agents already are working to help improve the standard of living in many communities. Andy Rideout, Hopkins County horticulture agent, has begun a food advocacy group, and Chad Conway, Knott County agriculture and natural resources agent, is focusing on tourism. Conway works with the Knott County judge executive to use mountaintop reclamation sites for development. They have been instrumental in building hundreds of miles of horseback riding trails on reclaimed land and helping to develop the county into an adventure tourism park system.

Melissa Bond, fine arts extension agent in Whitley County, is using the arts to make their farmers' market a gathering place for the entire community and increase sales of local products as a result.

Several of the agents are involved or are planning to become involved in 4-H Means Business, a 4H Youth Development program that teaches young people about entrepreneurship. Boyle County 4-H'er Griffin Blevins was on hand to show off her jewelry business-and sell a few pieces in the meantime. She and her mother Stephanie Blevins, 4H Youth Development specialist, spoke to the participants about the program.

"We want them to learn terms, product development, product pricing, financial management, record keeping and customer service," Stephanie Blevins said. "Two of the requirements are that their products must be juried and 10 percent of their sales must be given back to the community."

Ron Hustedde, director of the Kentucky Entrepreneurial Coaches Institute, also spoke about the presence of his institute's youth entrepreneurship program in more than 100 classrooms. In 2010, 1,800 Kentucky students created 360 news businesses. So far this year, the number of students participating has doubled; they've created between 600 and 700 new businesses.Hustedde said the skills they're teaching young people will be vital to the future health of many rural communities.

"Currently 18 percent of rural Americans own their own business," he said. "By 2015, that number will increase to 25 percent. For many of these communities, manufacturing is not an option. Local small business can be."

Davis is hopeful that many of the ideas discussed during the conference will make their way back to communities in rural areas.

"Agents were enthusiastic about specific programs they would take back to their community," she said. "We hope that the relationships that began during the conference will grow and become permanent."