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NIFA grant creates opportunities, challenges for professorNIFA grant creates opportunities, challenges for professor

Developing a USDA grant to help point more students to careers in agriculture can take more effort than meets the eye.

Forrest Laws

May 27, 2021

Rome wasn’t built in a day, the saying goes, and developing a USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant to help point more students to careers in agriculture can take more effort than meets the eye.

John Ricketts, professor of agricultural leadership, education and communications at Tennessee State University, says past projects he’s worked on are now coming into play to help with the USDA grant to provide quality online instruction to those students.

Ricketts was discussing a $100,000 USDA Capacity Building Grant designed to help universities such as Tennessee State build a pipeline of students from underserved communities to agriculture. His comments were made to the Memphis. Tenn., Agricultural Club, which has been meeting on Zoom during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We have two partners that are relevant to where you guys are located – Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis is one. We’ve been working with an instructor who teaches some of the agriculture courses there,” he noted. “Then it also got us in the door at Bolton High School which is right down the road from a lot of you.

“So that's an exciting piece that we're hoping will feed a lot of these other projects that you'll hear about today. I think there's going to be more opportunities with Shelby County. Because of the work a lot of you are probably doing there are more things happening than I ever planned for when we decided to reach out to Bolton and Southwest. So I’m kind of riding the wave on that, but I’m having a lot of fun with it to say the least.”

Two-year project

Ricketts said the $1 million USDA NIFA project the Memphis Ag Club asked him to speak about is a culmination of the earlier projects.

“It was a special project,” he said. “A lot of USDA NIFA projects come around every year. There may be some subsequent funding, but it didn’t really exist before this project. It’s a two-year project, which is unusual. A lot of them are three or more, but they put some good money in it to have some big impacts.”

With the earlier project Ricketts began developing relationships with software companies working in the online education field. “There are some people doing some amazing stuff in online instruction so I decided to go after this national project and to come in at the $1-million mark because we’re not Texas A&M, we’re the University of California at Davis. We’re a small school.

“Maybe the project was good enough to get $3 million, and I shot myself in the foot. But the $1 million is the largest project I’ve ever managed by myself, and it keeps me going all day long every day so I couldn’t imagine any larger project to be honest.”

What he and Tennessee State wanted to do, he said, was to provide quality online opportunities. “That word quality means so much, especially for underrepresented students, in case of future pandemics. We wanted students to be able to do the social distancing as per the USDA NIFA program and still have engaging agricultural education; to graduate high school on time; study agriculture in college; and graduate college on time.”

About the Author(s)

Forrest Laws

Forrest Laws, senior director of content for Farm Press, spent 10 years with The Memphis Press-Scimitar before joining Delta Farm Press in 1980. He has written extensively on farm production practices, crop marketing, farm legislation, environmental regulations and alternative energy. He now oversees the content creation for Delta, Southeast, Southwest and Western Farm Press. He resides in Memphis, Tenn. He served as a missile launch officer in the U.S. Air Force before resuming his career in journalism with The Press-Scimitar.

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