Welcoming a helpful neighbor

Published 10:39 pm Monday, December 17, 2012

For a city with as much farmland as Suffolk, one would expect the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service to have a vital presence and a cadre of agents dedicated to helping farmers achieve the highest yields on the crops, grow them in the most efficient ways and do all that with the least amount of unfavorable consequences for the environment.

Those are all the kinds of things that Extension agents do. Rex Cotten, the beloved 30-year veteran of the Suffolk Extension Office, was one of the most knowledgeable people in Southeast Virginia when it came to row crops and their cultivation in this area. His retirement in 2010 — in response to an incentive offered by Virginia Cooperative Extension as a budget-saving measure — left a gaping hole in the agency.

Suffolk’s close connection to the agency is clear as one passes the Tidewater Agricultural Research and Extension Center on Holland Road. There, 24 full-time employees work among 33 buildings and on more than 330 acres of land, as the center’s website states, “to enhance efficiency and profit potential in the production of food and fiber in the Commonwealth, and to do so in a manner that protects the environment and the public good.” Researchers there study the efficiency and reliability of new seeds, fertilizers, herbicides and pest controls, as well as new planting and cultivation techniques, and Suffolk farmers benefit from learning the results of that research.

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Even so, with the loss of Cotten in 2010 and the state agency’s protracted process of replacing him while fully staffing some other Extension offices throughout the commonwealth, farmers in Suffolk could be forgiven if they felt forgotten by Virginia’s agriculture officials.

Finally, just under two months ago, the long absence of an agricultural Extension agent in Virginia’s largest city has come to an end, and it did so with the fitting hire of a local man, Marcus Williams, to fill the position. Williams comes to the job from the Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville, Tenn., but he originally hails from Suffolk. He is a graduate of Nansemond River High School who attended Virginia State University on a football scholarship and got his introduction to the Extension Service during an internship at the Tidewater Research Center.

Suffolk farmers need a broad range of agricultural information — Williams already has heard questions about topics as diverse as row crops and goat’s milk. They were left on their own for too long, and they’ll be glad to welcome a neighbor back home, especially one who can be as helpful as Williams is poised to be.