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SAVOR THE SEASON: Summers brings Peace Corps passion to ag education

September 21, 2018
By ANDY FLYNN - Editor ( , Lake Placid News

WESTPORT - Carly Summers isn't a farmer. She's not a social worker, a community development director or a teacher. Yet she takes on all these roles as the agriculture resource educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension in Essex County.

She calls it a "super varied job," kind of like being in the Peace Corps all over again, but instead of El Salvador, where she served from 2005 to 2007, it's the Adirondack Park starting in 2017.

"The reason I said it's like the Peace Corps is because, to me, it's a job where my stakeholders are the farmers but also the whole community, because everybody eats and agriculture is part of everyone's lives," Summers said. "I basically try to listen to all my stakeholders and feel out where agriculture in this area needs support, and I try to do whatever educational programming I can to support that."

Article Photos

Carly Summers, right, agriculture resource educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension in Essex County, talks to a person at an event.
(Photo provided)

Summers grew up in Myakka, Florida, near Sarasota on a plot of land that was a family farm of sorts, though not commercial. There was an orange grove with 13 varieties of organic citrus, "a few cows and a few horses and a few pigs and chickens." It's where she grew an appreciate for agriculture and the land.

She earned a bachelor's degree in biochemistry from New College of Florida and a Ph.D. in plant pathology at Cornell University. It was during her time at Cornell that she began visiting the Adirondacks. Her jobs have been varied; she's worked at a plant pathology lab, a botany lab, as a substitute teacher and a chemist at an Alzheimer's lab. But the job at Cornell Cooperative Extension is her first one outside of grad school.

"I'm hoping I'm going to be able to observe positive growth and community connection to local agriculture," Summers said, "and I'm hoping I'm going to be able to hear back from the farmers that things that I've been able to do have helped them. I hope I can help farmers keep growing and have a sustainable livelihood and help community members get more access to local food and keep the community supporting itself."

Some of the photos she submitted of her work in Essex County demonstrate the variety of ag education. Some are from outreach events, such as the one of her with a backpack sprayer. That was part of a research project looking at using native nematodes to control insect pests, in collaboration with a researcher at Cornell. There is a photo of her with Kimmy Rivera from Triple Green Jade Farm at the Elizabethtown farmers market, which was part of a Farmers Market Tour and Cooking Demo event. She will do a series of those with Meghan Brooks at The Hub on the Hill in Essex. There is a photo of her in Elizabethtown in collaboration with WIC, as part of the Breastfeeding Awareness event in August. Then there's a photo of her teaching a shiitake log cultivation course.

"There was a lot of interest in the area for people that wanted to start raising shiitake mushrooms as a farming commercial venture, so I started doing these workshops, and that's been pretty popular," she said.

One of Summers's most direct roles is to connect farmers with regional specialist teams on the CCE staff. There are specialists for apples, dairy, forestry, livestock, vegetables, grapes, field crops and soils, business management and direct marketing.

Summers also performs community agriculture outreach. For example, she has collaborated with groups such as the Essex County Health Department and Office for the Aging to help low-income families access farm-fresh food markets with federally funded programs such as the Farmers Market Nutrition Program through WIC and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program.

"Connecting local foods to those populations is something that I think this collaboration between me and public health has been really great, and it's going to keep growing," she said.

Summers also spends time working on farm-to-school initiatives.

"I love my job!" she said. "It feels like I get to work and figure out what is meaningful, and so everything I'm doing feels important and fun and interesting. ... I feel like what I'm doing is hopefully making a difference. I know sometimes grassroots things like this take time, but I feel like what I'm doing is worthwhile, and I feel motivated. When I come to work, I feel like I'm doing something useful, so that's important to me."

With more farms in Essex County today than there were 15 years ago, coupled with a resurgence in the local food scene, Summers has plenty of people and communities to help. Since 2002, there has been an increase in direct market farmers in the county. The latest Ag Census figures (2012) show that the total number of direct market farms went up 82 percent - from 38 to 69 - and direct to consumer sales went up 361 percent - from $284,000 to $1.309 million - since 2002.

"That's actually one reason why I picked this job," she said. "I think this is such a unique and inspiring community of farmers. It's really beautiful to watch and see what they've been able to accomplish. A lot of them are people that didn't grow up farming and that have learned to do all of these things and to be entrepreneurs and be successful in such a short amount of time. It's just so amazing that they're doing this."

There are a lot of diverse issues in the county, but one that keeps coming up across the board is labor. Farmers are having a hard time finding hard-working, dependable employees.

"Maybe if the public knew, there are some people out there that would enjoy these jobs," she said.

Carly Summers, Cornell Cooperative Extension agriculture resource educator, can be contacted at 518-962-4810 ext. 409. Her office is in Westport.



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