Identifying plants and pests part of county agent’s job

By Tammy Keith Published July 21, 2014 at 9:15 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: William Harvey

Kami Marsh, an agriculture agent with the Faulkner County Cooperative Extension Service, stands in Legacy Gardens at the Faulkner County Natural Resource Center in Conway. Marsh, 32, said a friend in Nebraska who was from Harrison alerted her to the job in Conway in 2006, a new position as an extension agent focused on horticulture. The extension service provides free testing, information and classes for homeowners and commercial growers.

Kami Marsh, 32, came from Nebraska to Conway without knowing a soul, but she said co-workers at the Faulkner County Cooperative Extension Service, where she is an agriculture agent, “adopted” her.

When Marsh took the job in 2006, she said staff members helped her feel at home. They taught her “how to cook Southern,” she said, which includes not measuring ingredients, and they gave her plants for her home. When a tree fell in her front yard, Master Gardeners and farmers came to her rescue.

“It made me not homesick — they took me in,” Marsh said.

She recalled how Brenda Hawkins, administrative support supervisor, helped her learn who people were by writing helpful notes at the bottom of phone messages.

“She’d write, ‘This is a county judge,’ or ‘This is so-and-so’s brother,’” Marsh said.

She said that Hawkins even defended her when someone would comment that Marsh was a Yankee.

“She said, ‘She’s not a Yankee; she’s just north of Quitman,’” Marsh said, laughing. “I’m from the Midwest.”

Marsh was raised on a 5,000-acre ranch and farm in the small Nebraska city of Ord, “a farming community,” she said.

“I worked and lived on the farm, but Mom had a store downtown,” she said.

Her mother, Pat, sold items to fulfill whatever need wasn’t being met, from custom framing to fabric, picking up the slack when the Ben Franklin closed.

Later, her mother had 76 commissioned artists selling their wares in her store.

Marsh’s mother worked with the county they lived in to start a farmers market.

“My sister and I did the farmers market,” Marsh said. “We were vendors.

“I’ve been doing farmers market and working at my mom’s store since I had to have a stool to check people out at the cash register.”

The growing season was short in Nebraska, but to her delight, in Arkansas, she said, “we can grow 12 months a year.”

Marsh is one of five Faulkner County agents, and her emphasis is horticulture. She is also the Conway Farmers Market adviser, which is supposed to be just a small role, but she has expanded it.

“Because it’s in my blood … I love that part, that I get to help them,” she said. “It’s one of my favorite things.”

Phyllis Strack of Conway, one of the vendors at the farmers market, said Marsh is the best county agent with whom she’s ever worked.

“We have an agent who actually cares. She’s not an 8-5 person,” Strack said. “Sometimes she works from 6 in the morning till 10 at night; she travels the different farms. If it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t be this big.”

Marsh agreed about the hours.

“I am a workaholic — I am my mother,” she said. “If you’re a good county agent, you’re not at work 8 to 4:30,” she said.

Marsh said she realized recently that “I’m turning into my mother,” which is fine with Marsh.

“She’s my hero; I love her,” Marsh said.

Marsh said that when she spoke at her first civic club meeting and was asked how she got to Conway, she would say, jokingly, “I just drove till it was warm enough and I didn’t have to scoop snow.”

Actually, Marsh had graduated from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and was working on a master’s degree there. She was a graduate assistant in the Nebraska 4-H office.

In 2006, a friend of hers in the office, who was from Arkansas, saw the Conway job opening in a newsletter.

Marsh applied, got hired, turned in her graduate thesis and moved to Conway, all within a few days. The agriculture-agent position was new for the growing Faulkner County.

The position is funded by Conway and the state.

“There was never another agent who did this position, so I really got to start at ground zero and start the program,” she said.

“A typical day, I’ll come in and have emails like anybody else. I had plant samples on my desk this morning. Sometimes I have bugs to identify,” she said.

The Faulkner County Cooperative Extension Service, University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, offers many free services, such as identifying plants, what nutrients a lawn needs or helping homeowners decide what to plant in their yards.

Marsh’s undergraduate degree is in landscape design, and the training comes in handy.

“You can bring me pictures, and we can go through your yard, and I can sketch up and talk about the right plant in the right location,” she said.

“You can bring in plants that are looking horrible, and if I don’t know what’s going on, we can send them to the diagnostic center at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville for free and find out what’s going on,” she said.

Hawkins said Marsh is knowledgeable in her subject area and can convey information so that homeowners can understand it.

“A lot of people come in with their soil samples, and they don’t understand what their results are, and she sits down and talks with them … and they feel good when they leave and understand it,” Hawkins said. “She was like a breath of fresh air in our office when she came here.”

Marsh might go from looking at the leaf of a homeowner’s shrub to a rice field, then to helping the owner of a peach orchard set out bug traps.

“We monitored the bugs. … Are bugs present? Now spray,” Marsh said. It helped the grower use less pesticide.

“We teach those pesticide-application classes,” she said.

When a grower told Marsh a fruit-production meeting was needed, Marsh knew it wasn’t her strength, so she called on state specialists.

“Now it’s a statewide meeting, and anyone in the state can come,” she said.

“The neat thing is it’s homeowners, and it’s commercial,” Marsh said of who she helps.

She has a show on Conway Corp. Channel 5 called Dishin’ Dirt, where she gives how-to tips for homeowners.

“Once it airs for a month, it goes on the YouTube channel, and anybody can watch it,” she said.

Don’t expect Marsh to give a tour of her own beautiful garden, though.

“I won’t lie; I don’t let the Master Gardeners know where I live,” she said, laughing.

Although she said she doesn’t have time to do a lot of her own gardening, she admits being addicted to plants.

“I love to buy plants like some people like to buy shoes,” she said. “I can’t go into certain stores.”

Marsh said she has a particular affinity for hostas, and there were 92 varieties on her parents’ farm. When they sold the farm, they divided the plants between her sister and her, so she has a few of them in Arkansas.

Marsh is also adviser for the 200 Faulkner County Master Gardeners, and she teaches the classes.

“They make my job,” she said. “I couldn’t do my job without them. They’re the best volunteer group around.”

The Master Gardeners maintain 35 projects in Faulkner County.

“I can go play in the dirt any time I want to,” she said.

She said the Freyaldenhoven family, out of the goodness of their hearts, allows the extension service to have a teaching garden at the family’s greenhouse business on Siebenmorgen Road in Conway.

“We can take someone to see seven raised beds,” she said, and explain different plants and what they cost to grow.

The first year Marsh was in Arkansas, that demonstration garden gave her “an eye-opening experience,” she said.

“Our first year, it was horrific. We had invasion of the bugs,” she said. Homeowners had called about a bug problem, but Marsh thought “it couldn’t be that bad.”

“When we went to harvest squash, we lifted it up, and the bugs were boiling out of the ground,” she said.

The weather affects her job to a large extent, and the calls start coming.

“Variable oak-leaf caterpillars were really bad last year. Hopefully, we won’t have any this year,” she said, knocking on the top of the table.

The Faulkner County Extension Service also offers free classes and workshops, Marsh said.

Topics include tomatoes, pruning, irrigation, gardening, commercial turf, commercial fruits and vegetables, and more.

“I can tailor my classes and programs to the needs of the community,” she said.

For example, the Conway Parks and Recreation Department director and a lawn service both asked her to help train new employees on turf disease and what pests they’d be dealing with.

“If you came to me and said, “Hey, my subdivision property-owners association needs training on how to prune crape myrtles, we would have a class,” she said. “If the community tells me there’s a need, I try to fill that need.”

It’s reminiscent of her mother offering goods and services in her store based on what was lacking in the town.

Marsh said her mother, who lives 12 hours away,

regularly writes her notes.

“She told me in one letter that, apparently, I wanted to go to culinary school,” Marsh said, adding that she doesn’t remember having that dream.

“I love to cook,” she said. “I love meat, but I could be a vegetarian, I think, in the summer because the vegetables are so fresh.”

And Marsh, like a good Southern cook, said she finally bought a cast-iron skillet.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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