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New chancellor shares thoughts about UTIA role



Dr. Tim Cross assumed his role as UTIA chancellor Jan. 1.
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Dr. Tim Cross began 2017 by stepping into his new role as chancellor of the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture (UTIA).

UT’s board of trustees approved in December the recommendation of President Joe DiPietro that Cross be appointed as the next UTIA chancellor and that Beverly Davenport be appointed as the next chancellor of UT Knoxville.

“Both UT Knoxville and the Institute of Agriculture are among the most visible and impactful institutions within the UT system and the state of Tennessee,” DiPietro said. “I am confident their new chancellors are the strong, effective leaders who can lead them forward.”

Cross had served as interim UTIA chancellor since September when former Chancellor Larry Arrington stepped down after five years. Cross’ almost 23-year career at UT includes serving as dean of UT Extension from 2008 to 2016 and assistant dean from 2001 to 2006. He was also professor of agricultural economics for three years and associate professor for four years prior.

Before coming to UT in 1994, Cross spent 11 years at Oregon State University as assistant professor of agricultural and resources economics. He also was an instructor in the department of agriculture at Fort Hays State University in Kansas.

Cross earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agricultural economics from Oklahoma State University and a doctorate in agricultural and resources economics from Oregon State University.

“I’ve heard Dr. DiPietro say for several years now that it’s the best job in the system, so why wouldn’t I want this job?” Cross said. He and his wife, Denise, have four children: Jarod, Nicholas, Hannah, and Justin, all of whom have been active in 4-H.

Dr. Cross took time from his schedule in early January to meet with Tennessee Cooperator editor Glen Liford to discuss his new role and the vital relationship of UTIA with Tennessee’s agricultural community.

Q: Tell us a little about where you grew up and what got you into agriculture.

I was born in upstate New York. My family lived out in dairy country, but not on a dairy. We were surrounded by dairy farms. I think that’s really where my interest in agriculture first came. Some of my earliest memories are riding on a tractor with the folks who operated the dairy, either spreading manure, plowing, or planting, doing basic practices, either silage production or manure management. From that time, I really thought agriculture was something of value and interest both to me and obviously to our country.

Q: Tell what brought you to Tennessee and why you decided to stay for 23 years.

I had been in a tenure-track faculty position [at Oregon State University] for about three years and saw a position advertised here at UT that was focused on beef and forage economics. At Oregon, I was one of two faculty [members] who dealt with farm management. We covered more than a hundred different crops and livestock enterprises. So I was one of those individuals whose [expertise] was a mile wide and an inch deep. I wanted to specialize and develop more depth in one area, so I applied for the position here and was successful. We moved here in 1994 and have really enjoyed our time in Tennessee. It has been a great place to live, work, and raise a family.

We bought a small farm in east Knox County. We’ve had some cattle, but predominantly we’ve been involved in sheep production. All four of our children showed sheep among their other 4-H activities. It was a really good experience for them. It [allowed] me to remain connected with agriculture in a small way, not in a commercial sense. It was a great opportunity to go out and get some exercise, be involved in raising sheep, raising forage, just a good way to kind of get your hands dirty every weekend.

Q: Talk a bit about the importance of the four major units of UTIA (the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, UT College of Veterinary Medicine, UT Extension, and UT Agricultural Research and how they work together for Tennessee agriculture.

I think perhaps one of the most difficult parts of this job is explaining to people what the Institute of Agriculture is. Not because it is complex, but just because it is very broad. It serves a diverse set of stakeholders. We have faculty involved in everything from small animal care to wildlife and exotic animal care to teaching undergraduates about agriculture, forestry, even construction science. We are [conducting] cutting-edge research on genetics, genomics, biotechnology-related agriculture, but also [research] related to the environment and natural resource management. And, of course, we have our Extension programs working with farmers and families as well as youth and community leaders. The range of what we do is quite broad, and while we refer to ourselves as the Institute of Agriculture, I think you can describe much of what we do as helping in the areas of economics, environment, and health. We’re working on some statements that would illustrate how the Institute of Agriculture impacts those three areas. It can be through farming, food, or natural resource management. It can manifest itself as financial management for families or improving the health and nutrition of our youth, just a wide range of ways in which we serve the state.

Q: Tell me what your responsibilities are and what the chancellor does.

I usually point out that no real work happens in the chancellor’s office. The work is done by our faculty, staff, and volunteers on campus and all across the state. I think the chancellor’s job is to be sure that those individuals have the resources they need to do what they are asked to do. [The chancellor] represents the Institute with university administration, explains the value of what we do to our elected officials, demonstrates the benefits that we provide, and [shares] the possibilities that exist with donors, students being recruited and their families, and 4-H participants. All those things are what I believe the chancellor needs to be focused on. But again, the work is done by the faculty, staff, and volunteers related to each of the program areas.

Q: Thinking about the famous Norman Rockwell painting of the county agent, how has the role of the county agent changed since that painting was done in 1948, and how is it still similar?

I think there are aspects of both change and similarity from the time the painting was done. What hasn’t changed is the need for that personal connection to the families and the farmers we serve and helping them to access research-based information. I think that has been a constant over the 100-plus years of Extension’s existence. What has changed is that agriculture has become much more diverse. Needs have become much more specialized, much more technology-oriented, and it’s very difficult to add value to each and every agriculture operation that is out there. So today, we certainly continue to work with row-crop farms, dairies, and beef cattle operations, but we are also heavily involved with agritourism, those producing greenhouse-related products, and those that may be interested in adding value to production by producing food products as opposed to just agricultural commodities. I think that is a real challenge because there is so much to know these days. A farmer has to be a scientist, an accountant and a lawyer. That’s very difficult for them to do, and it’s difficult for us to advise them in all those areas.

Q: Do you have a vision for UTIA for the next 10 or 20 years?

I’ve always said that the last thing I wanted to do was sit at my desk and create a vision for an organization as diverse as the Institute of Agriculture. I’m focused on seeking input and feedback not only from across the Institute but from the stakeholders in the state of Tennessee and beyond to make sure that we are addressing the real needs and priorities that are out there. I don’t have a vision today that I would say clearly articulates where the Institute is headed. But my goal in the next two to three months is to create such a vision, be sure we all know where we are headed and why, and what success will look like when we arrive.

Q: What are the top challenges you see?

In terms of challenges that need to be considered in that vision process, I think technology is one that’s both a challenge and an opportunity. A lot of new technologies are being developed, everything from big, data-oriented applications in agriculture, the use of drones, the use of sequencing, and many tools that we didn’t even know existed five years ago. Making sure that we are on top of the latest research for those technologies and that we are also delivering information about those technologies to our students and to farmers and community members are going to be really important.

I don’t think anybody could argue with the impact that climate has on agriculture production. We need to pay attention to climate… The drought that we just experienced in the fall in many parts of the state is an illustration that climate is always going to have an impact on us. While it came at a time that had more limited effects on agricultural production than it might have otherwise, it illustrates that climate is something that we have to deal with. And certainly the very negative consequences of that drought that came about in the Gatlinburg area and the fires and the loss of lives and the loss of property illustrate that it’s an important issue in our state.

The third area that I think is a real challenge for us is thinking about the future with regard to our agricultural production: Who will our farmers of the future be? What are their needs? And what are the educational opportunities that we have there to be sure we are training the workforce that can continue to provide for our food needs for this country?

Q: It seems that there is also a communication issue with the general public about agriculture. What opportunities do you see?

Not only in Tennessee, but nationwide we see a real need to help consumers, to help our community members know more about food, how it is produced, where it comes from, and how it can benefit them in terms of a healthy diet. Ag literacy is a real challenge. Our families, in many cases, are two and three generations removed from the farm these days. There are a lot of misconceptions about agricultural production. Communication is key to everything we do and with regard to the three challenges we just talked about, I think communication outweighs every one of those. So our efforts in addressing those challenges have to be using the best tools that we find in terms of communications and using the best messages that we can develop.

Q: The history of Extension and Co-op goes back to the organization’s beginning in 1945 with Al Jerdan, UT Extension marketing specialist and the Tennessee Farm Bureau and the committee that recommended the cooperative business model. The organizations have worked well together for many years. How do you see Co-op and Extension working together going forward?

Going back to the very creation of the Farmers

Co-op, there was a real need, and continues to be a real need, for farmers to obtain the products and services required to produce the crops and livestock that we pride ourselves on in this state. It has been one of the more rewarding partnerships that I’ve had the pleasure of being involved with. There is seldom an opportunity that doesn’t require some partnering between Extension and TFC or other suppliers. Maybe it’s a new product or a new variety, or perhaps it’s a new technology, but at some time or another, farmers have to have access to those things. While Extension can provide the information and the education about those opportunities, it still requires access to products. That’s where I think TFC does such a good job. They provide access to products and knowledge across the entire state in so many locations. Very seldom do I go to a county and visit with either an agent or a member of the TFC store or others involved in agriculture where I don’t hear stories about how they have worked together to provide an educational program to address a need, perhaps related to some issue or to think about the future and plan for what is coming, and I think that is how things ought to work. No one really can achieve what is possible independently. It is [based] almost entirely these days on teamwork and partnership. I think the partnership with Co-op is vitally important to the Institute and agriculture being successful in Tennessee. That sounds a little too perfect, but I feel that way.

 Co-op has been a donor for the Institute for many years, and that support is appreciated and recognized. We couldn’t do what we do without the support we receive from Co-op, and that includes scholarships for youth involving 4-H, scholarships for undergraduates at UT and at other universities. 

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