AgEd professors win USDA grant to improve agricultural literacy, promote diversity

Agricultural education (AgEd) alumni professor James Lindner, along with assistant professors Christopher Clemons and Jason McKibben, have been awarded a nearly $300,000 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The grant is being used to recruit and prepare ethnically and gender diverse doctoral students with technical competence and leadership skills to meet the need for a more agriculturally literate public.

The students, four of whom are on campus with two more coming on board in the fall, are being recruited through the program’s collaborative projects with Historical Black College and University (HBCU) partners, specifically Tuskegee University, Alabama A&M University, Tennessee State University and North Carolina A&T State University. Recruiting is also enhanced through the program’s relationships with Professional Agriculture Workers Conference and Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences. Fellows will participate in international research experiences through the AgEd program’s partnership with the University of the West Indies. 

AgEd students infront of AgEd table

Of the four students in the program now, two came to Auburn from Tuskegee University. Another of the students is from Trinidad and Tobago, a dual-island Caribbean nation near Venezuela and the fourth is from the Republic of Ghana in West Africa.

“The Agricultural Science Education program at Auburn University has a long history of preparing teachers and leaders in agriculture as school-based agriculture teachers, field-based county extension agents, agricultural industry representatives, agricultural policy makers and agricultural communicators,” said Lindner, the project’s Principal Investigator. “As the only university with an Agricultural Education program in Alabama, faculty, staff and graduate students have a unique obligation to prepare and support the next generation of agricultural leaders and teachers. Auburn’s Agricultural Education program prepares students to be effective leaders, communicators and teachers of agriculture in a nationally-recognized Targeted Expertise Shortage Area.”

The doctoral students will conduct basic and applied research on agricultural literacy and communications, communicate results of their research and provide outreach and professional development for secondary AgriScience education teachers and industry personnel. They will also develop, teach and evaluate curricular materials. 

“A major research focus of our program’s faculty is agricultural literacy, communications and effective teaching of agriculture in middle and secondary programs,” Lindner said. “This specifically positions our faculty at Auburn to address and guide future doctoral students in the methods of communicating to an otherwise agriculturally illiterate population. Auburn’s mission recognizes the importance of promoting an inclusive and diverse environment and our program is committed to establishing diversity as a core value.”

“All four of our scholars have had an outstanding year in Auburn despite challenges raised by the pandemic. The program is going very well and we look forward to expanding it to address a critical need in our state, country and world.”

Auburn’s mission recognizes the importance of promoting an inclusive and diverse environment, and our program is committed to establishing diversity as a core value.

Meet the students

Tracy James headshot

Tracy James is from Trinidad and Tobago. Before coming to Auburn she earned two degrees in agriculture at the University of the West Indies. She also had an international postgraduate experience.

“I have known Dr. Lindner for ten years because he has been conducting research and doing study tours to Trinidad and Tobago for more than 25 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University of the West Indies,” she said. “We just clicked from day one and he has been after me to come to Auburn. I am so happy to finally be here and to see the different ways agriculture can be taught.”

“My time here so far is beyond excellent. The program is very student focused and student driven. Our professors work to ensure that we have everything we need to succeed. They are tremendously knowledgeable about international agricultural issues and they all have open-door policies. Back home it can be tedious at times to get an appointment with the professors. That is never the case here. Our professors give us a great deal of responsibility along with their guidance. They trust us and show us how to be the next generation of great leaders.”

Agriculture in Trinidad focuses primarily on vegetable production such as eggplant and tomatoes to name a few, but there is also a smaller-scale emphasis on cocoa.

“Our Caribbean soil is great for cocoa,” James said. “We produce some of the best quality cocoa in the world, in fact. We could have that industry going much better but for various reasons there is not much help or infrastructure and the prices are very low.”

“Our little republic has 1.4 million people but we spend U.S. $800 million (TT $5 billion) a year to import food. It shouldn’t be that way. The Ministry of Agriculture tries to assist farmers as best as they can. There are programs in place where farmers have access to subsidies once they have their farmer’s card. But farmers who don’t have the badge due to lack of ownership of lands do not have access to these programs. Maybe some policy restructuring can be done to assist these farmers that don’t have access to these subsidies provided by the Ministry of Agriculture. This can help in alleviating the struggles of some of these farmers. They put money and effort into land preparation, fertilizer and plants, and then they are lucky to break even. There is no crop insurance. So that’s why what we are doing here is so important. I love talking to people and being able to understand their problems and then communicate solutions. From Dr. Lindner’s example I want to work in academia. Really, I want to be the next Jimmy (Lindner)!”

Akua Adu Gyamfi is from Ghana in West Africa. She is married with two children. She has been in the U.S. for 10 years. With her master’s in rural sociology, she worked as a food security coordinator for four years before joining the doctoral program at Auburn.

Akua Adu Gyamfi, AgEd grad student, headshot

“One of my professors at a conference explained the interdisciplinary nature of Auburn’s program and said I might be a good fit for it. I did some research and realized the program was just right for my future. I have always been interested in food security and hope my studies here might lead me to work at an NGO or international cooperative to help the poor.”

“The program is exceptional,” she continued. “I enjoy the mentoring, leadership training and the caring advisors we have in our program. I have become a better version of myself ever since I joined the program.”

“When I go back to Africa, I want to use the knowledge and expertise I have gained here to impact so many people who are struggling. Back home we are major producers of cocoa, and we grow vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers. We also grow peanuts, plantains and yams, which are not the same things as sweet potatoes.”

Besides her passion for helping others, Akua is also passionate about Auburn football.

“We have soccer back home but football here is killer fun,” she said. “I love food, I love the community feeling of bringing people together, and that all happens in the craziness of tailgating.”

Makeda Nurradin, though born in Columbus, Ohio, has a strong Alabama connection. Her grandmother was a sharecropper on a farm in Walker Springs, a rural area of Clarke County. She loved to tell her granddaughter about George Washington Carver, whom she met when he visited her elementary school. She also reminisced about the 4-H Club of which she was a member. These stories, coupled with working in the family garden, sparked in Nurradin, at an early age, a love for agriculture and a desire to study at Tuskegee University, which she did.

Make Nurradin headshot

“My undergraduate degree, earned at Tuskegee University, is in environmental science,” Nurradin said. “I worked with muscadines, blueberries and tomatoes. All that hands-on farm work propelled me to want to pursue a Ph.D. in an ag-related field. About that time, I learned about the program at Auburn. I was accepted and was also named as a USDA National Needs Fellow.”

Nurradin said she loved the program from day one.

“In addition to our academic and research efforts, our professors are also great mentors,” she said. “From the very start, every two weeks we would have workshops where they taught us about dossiers, developing curriculum, creating our vitas. And all the while we are conducting consequential research. I was in the quantitative realm but am learning about qualitative research. And all three of our professors are there for us. If the door is open, I just walk in to say hi and ask questions.”

Nurradin said external resources such as the Miller Writing Center and workshops on systemic reviews are helpful, and that she also participates in Dean George Flowers’ “Dean’s Café” mentoring sessions. The entire cohort volunteers to support the Auburn community through gatherings such as The Big Event. She volunteers at a food pantry as well.

“I want to work in academia when I complete my doctoral work,” she said. “There is so much confusion out there related to things like food labels and GMOs, and it’s all related to ag literacy, which is a major focus of our program. Our professors really inspire me. I want to be like Jimmy (Lindner), but I cannot. There is only one of him.” 

Ronald Davis grew up in Clinton, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC. He said he was surrounded by agriculture but was largely unaware of its broad scope. He knew he wanted to work with his hands and find a way to make an impact, so he went to Tuskegee with the plan of becoming a veterinarian.

Ronald Davis. AgEd grad student, headshot

“Although I graduated with a degree in animal science, I really didn’t like it all that much,” Davis said. “It was much less personal than I thought it would be. My major professor said because of its interdisciplinary nature, I might enjoy Agricultural Education. As soon as I got up with Jimmy (Lindner) I was hooked. I had worked with HBCUs and he asked me to come over and help prepare the grant and now here I am.”

Davis described the program as “phenomenal.”

“It all starts with the commitment and mentorship of our professors,” he said. “It is truly a world-renowned program and very demanding. But the way they manage the program here is a genuine work-life balance. In my past I never had an advisor who said ‘Hey. You need a break.’ I tend to drive myself so that helps. It’s obvious that they want you to succeed and that motivates me.”

“For my part, I want to expose people to the world of agriculture. There is a huge disconnect in the public mind about what agriculture really is and where it is going. People just think about old farmers out in the field or driving their tractors. Of course it is much more intricate and complicated than that. For that reason, I could see myself working in Extension and creating possibilities for young people at an early age to engage in experiential learning and embracing agriculture as a career.”

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