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7/15/2011 9:27:42 AM

Non-traditional classroom suits Meeks just fine

By Sandra Hansen, The Scottsbluff Star-Herald

LINGLE, Wyo. - Growing up in an educationally focused environment, Jenna Meeks said she didn't have much choice but to follow the family tradition. Her mother, several aunts, and grandmother were all traditional classroom teachers. Her father, however, used the farm as a classroom, teaching work ethic, the importance of completing a job, and many other things that Jenna didn't realize she was "learning."
Those conditions helped guide her to a career in agriculture, but one that is leaning toward educational opportunities. With degrees in agriculture economics and soil and crop sciences from Colorado State University, Meeks was hired in January as the assistant research scientist or project manager at the University of Wyoming Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension Center near Lingle, Wyo.
The two-year old project is designed to collect data on the Economic and Environmental Sustainability of Conventional, Reduced-Input, and Organic Approaches on Western Crop-Range-Livestock Farms. Several other UW researchers are participating in the effort. The project aims to determine whole-farm viability of integrated agriculture by studying a cash-crop system involving common crop rotations, and a beef-calf system comprised of cow/calf pairs and forage crops. The group will be looking at soil properties, moisture and temperature, weed, disease and insect populations, crop quality and yield, livestock performance, economic viability and marketing potential.
The systems project includes sugar beets, corn, dry beans, and alfalfa/grass, and 24 head of cattle. The crops are grown in traditional rotations.
Because the project focuses on the entire production system, it is essential to accumulate and evaluate several years of data before drawing conclusions. The project is scheduled to run another two years, operating on more than $1 million in grants. Results will be available to the public, and research components and strategies will be incorporated into secondary, undergraduate and graduate education.
"Providing baseline information regarding conventional, reduced-input, and organic production approaches, will allow producers to quantitatively assess benefits and challenges of each system," Meeks explained from her office in a lab area of the SAREC administrative building. She said three cooperators are working with the SAREC group on this project.
Before Wyoming, Meeks said she was a crop scout one summer, putting in long, hot days. Another job included a stint in Washington, D.C., with the National Association of Wheat Growers for one semester, and some time last year with the USDA Agricultural Research Service. "That was too big, and the office every day was too much. I'm lucky I got this job with all of its education components," she said.
As for her future, Meeks wants to stay in academia. She likes the idea of Extension service because of its focus on education, but she isn't sure what is waiting for her. "I'm not ready to work on a master's degree, and I like field work. I like to learn. My eighth grade coach once told me I was coachable, that I learned easily. The farm crew here at SAREC has taught me a lot, and I expect to stay here for a while. I like driving down country roads where people wave to you." She also likes the common sense she sees in rural communities, where people think through problems, and figure out how to solve them.
"The university is one place to learn more, or I might go back to the family farm. My sister is an agricultural engineer, and we've talked about going back to the farm some day. But that's up to my Dad. I just know I want to stay in agriculture."

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