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Senior Extension Agent Rooted in Service

For Senior Extension Agent Adam Downing, summer doesn’t offer much respite from a schedule packed with programming and activities.

After a day conducting agroforestry fieldwork in Montpelier – and ahead of a SHARP Logger Program training that he will be facilitating in Elkton – Downing shared reflections about his work for Virginia Cooperative Extension, how he found his way into the field of forestry extension, and what drives him onward.

What does the term “Extension” mean to you? How do you define your role?

What it means to me is that I’m put in a geographic location to make an educational impact by working with people on the resources in that location.

In my case, that’s the northwest district, which includes 20 counties. It’s up to me to work with communities and individuals to identify what the issues and needs are and then figure out what role extension can play in helping to solve some challenges that people face.

An example is our work supporting silvopasture, a fairly new practice in the mid-Atlantic that integrates trees, pasture, and livestock in the same place. I’ve been able to work with School of Plant and Environment Sciences Professor John Fike on several research projects trying to answer questions that we don’t have answers to right now.

That kind of work reflects what Extension is to me: it’s a very bottom-up process where we start with local issues and interests and go from there.

You’ve been an Extension agent for Virginia for more than 20 years. What are some projects that you’ve found the most meaningful over the years?

One of the programs I’ve most enjoyed is the Generation Next Program, which supports the generational transfer of family forest and woodlands. Our work there has impacts on both the resources and the families involved, and I treasure working in this space with others.

We’ve been very fortunate in partnering with the Virginia Department of Forestry to develop a lot of curriculum materials and publications and videos, and as a result, I think we have one of the best programs in the country to help forest landowners make decisions about how to best steward their land for generations to come.

More recently, I’ve greatly enjoying working in the agroforestry and forest farming realm. Virginia Tech has really been a leader in that space, and I’ve enjoyed working with Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation Professor John Munsell on his research in that space. We were actually looking for natural ginseng near Montpelier today, and we managed to find a little.

You served in the Peace Corp in Kenya as a young man. How did that experience shape your current career?

It was huge, a huge connection. Peace Corps uses the Extension model, and when I was doing my three months of training in Kenya prior to going out to my field location, that’s where I learned about the Extension model of needs assessments and how to become a part of a community to build trust and affect change.

So that’s really where I learned what Extension was: Serving in Kenya, I realized this is what I wanted to do when I got back to the States.

Where in Kenya were you stationed, and what kind of work did you do?

I was in an area called the Laikipia district, at the base of Mount Kenya. This is a semi-arid part of the country, and I was working day-to-day with farmers and women’s groups and school groups to collect and plant tree seeds and help them to incorporate trees into their subsistence farms. This was my first experience to agroforestry.

I worked with a Kenyan counterpart, learning everything I could about the plants and the culture. I spent a lot of time on a bicycle, just getting from point A to point B.

Adam Downing stands in the trunk of a champion chestnut oak tree. He recently has collaborated on projects studying agroforestry and forest farming as well as silvopasture techniques. Photo courtesy of Adam Downing.

One question I’m interested in are the connections between the careers people choose and how those careers often connect back to early memories or experiences. Did you have any experiences growing up that feel like they connect to the work you do now?

Going further back, my father was an environmental educator, so I grew up in that educational world. He developed and directed an innovative environmental education program for a school district in Ohio, and one of the highlights of that program was having all of the fifth graders come to a 40-acre land laboratory, where volunteers immersed students in hands-on learning. He’d also go into classrooms each winter and give lessons on environmental science.

A lot of what he did has a direct connection to the work I do currently, from community engagement to fundraising and collaborations. He would’ve made a very good Extension agent, and I have a lot of gratitude for the way my parents raised me.

What are some projects coming down the pipeline for you that you’re looking forward to?

We have a Generation NEXT Workshop taking place in the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton in August, which I’m looking forward to. And my colleagues and I are working on a continuing education event coordinated with the Society of American Foresters [SAF], which will allow certified foresters to get continuing education credits to maintain their certification.

I also have a two-day teacher training event at McCormick Farm, Virginia Tech’s Shenandoah Valley Agricultural Research and Extension Center. It’s a partnership with the Virginia Department of Forestry, the Headwaters Soil and Water Conservation District, and the local Skyline Chapter of SAF. We’re targeting high school science teachers and exposing them to what forestry is and how they can incorporate forest science into their classrooms.

When you train one teacher, you’re reaching 20 or 30 students year after year. So it’s a great investment and a fun program. Getting teachers out in the field, you see a lot of light bulbs go off.

What is the best part of your job?

There are so many different aspects of extension work that I enjoy, but I particularly enjoy being a part of both the forestry community and the academic community. Having built – and continuing the build – so many relationships with other natural resource professionals, volunteers, landowners, loggers, and more is the joy of my work.

By David Fleming

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