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County hires Stephanie White to develop new ag curriculum

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By John Barnhart

How do you sell square bales of hay for $75 a bale when your neighbors are getting $3 a bale for the same product?

Stephanie White found a way to do it. White, who has been hired by Bedford County to develop a community college based agricultural curriculum, said that she and her husband were running a farm in Craig County a few years ago. They invested in equipment to shred the hay and marketed it to tortoise and iguana enthusiasts around the world. She gives this as an example of how local agricultural businesses can improve their income by finding new markets for their products.

White's position is funded by a Tobacco Commission grant. According to Sue Montgomery, the county's directory of economic development, Robert Lowry, director of Central Virginia Community College's Bedford Center, brought the idea to the county's agricultural board. Jerry Craig, a member of the board, credits Montgomery for selling the idea to the Tobacco Commission.

The first part of White's work is to conduct a study to determine the feasibility of a two-year agricultural curriculum.

"I get to meet all the wonderful farmers in Bedford County," White said.

White said her job is to look out five years ahead and determine what sort of curriculum would be beneficial to local farmers. Some of the areas she will look at are biofuels and GPS/GIS.

GPS/GIS stands for Global Positioning System/Geographical Information System, and she said that she was recently at a conference in Iowa that showed how this technology can benefit farmers raising livestock. The conference used the technology to set up a virtual fence for cattle.

The farmer can set up pastures within his property and use the technology to move cattle from pasture to pasture, maximizing the benefit from each pasture. It can also keep cattle out of streams.

Each cow wears a GPS transmitter and a device that makes a sound and delivers what White called a "stimulus." When the cow gets within 100 feet of a boundary, the device makes a sound. Within 75 feet, the sound is combined with the "stimulus." Within 50 feet, the sound gets louder and the "stimulus" gets stronger, increasing again within 25 feet.

"My goal is to figure out what Bedford agribusinesses need to be more profitable," she said.

According to County Administrator Kathleen Guzi, the goal is to complete the feasibility study this fall.

Assuming that the study indicates that a two-year curriculum is needed, White's next job will be to develop it. White said the goal is to set up a semester schedule that is working farmer-friendly. Having the curriculum based at a community college means that members of farm families won't have to leave the community to take the courses and will be able to take advantage of the lower tuition that community colleges offer. Associate degree recipients can also apply credit toward a four-year degree at a university.

White will also be responsible for recruiting students and hiring the faculty needed. Faculty members would need at least a master's degree with 18 credit-hours of work at the master's level in agriculture.

White has a bachelor of science degree in agricultural economics from Virginia Tech and a master's degree in instructional design and technology from the same university. She did an internship with Southern States and went on to sell products to businesses that deal in agricultural equipment dealers. Jeff Powers, who chairs Bedford's agricultural board, and his father, Henry, were among her first customers. She has spent the last 14 years at Virginia Tech where she was director of agricultural technology. She said this was the only two-year associate degree program on campus.

Why did she decide to leave Tech to work for Bedford County?

White said that the industry demand for associate degree graduates exceeds supply.

"It's a good five times the supply," she said. "I see this as a great opportunity to give students more educational choices at the local level."

White added that she's looking forward to being a partner with Tech in the curriculum development process.