KFB Candid Conversation: Dr. Kirk Pomper, Kentucky State University's Interim Dean for the College of Agriculture

Posted on Aug 25, 2020

KFB Candid Conversation presents a discussion about the topical issues facing the agricultural industry and rural communities in a question and answer format. In this column, Dr. Kirk Pomper, Kentucky State University’s (KSU) Interim Dean for the College of Agriculture, Communities, and the Environment and Director of Land Grant Programs, discusses agriculture programs at KSU and the university’s long history of working with Kentucky farm families.       

First, could you give us a little background on yourself and your duties at KSU?

In addition to being the interim dean for the College of Agriculture, Communities, and the Environment and Director of Land Grant Programs here at the university, I have served in various roles in my 20 years at KSU. I've actually served as a professor of horticulture for quite a while, too. But in my current role, I'm responsible for overseeing the day-to-day operations and all the research and extension that goes on at KSU under the land grant programs, as well as supervising the academic programs in agriculture.

KSU is one of two land grant universities in the state. Can you talk to me for a minute about the importance of that and how it works into the role of the College of Agriculture?

There are two land grant universities in Kentucky, and we are the 1890 land grant institution. As a historically black land-grant university, our mission is to support underserved populations, including those involved in agriculture. We have a strong commitment to working with small farmers and limited-resource farmers across Kentucky—including smaller entrepreneurs—as we try to find ways for them to achieve greater economic opportunities.

Most of the farms in Kentucky are small farms and, of course, with the tough ag economy that we’ve seen lately, there’s a sort of a perfect correlation, if you will, between KSU’s efforts with agriculture and the needs of those small farm families in Kentucky.

Absolutely. And if you look at Kentucky, there are over 70,000 farms in our state, and almost three-quarters of them are small farms. And so, while we work with all kinds of folks involved in ag, our emphasis is to work with small farms where there are greater opportunities, because there are a lot of high value crops and products that can be produced by those small farmers that can give them supplemental income to help them thrive. It also provides a great opportunity for KSU to work with a lot of our partners, including the University of Kentucky (UK), Kentucky Farm Bureau, and the Kentucky Ag Development Board—all of whom are trying to do everything possible to help those small farmers.

I know that KSU is recognized both nationally and internationally for its research and in a lot of areas, including aquaculture and pawpaw production, to name a few. Would you elaborate a little bit on those areas of research and their importance to our agriculture industry?

Our program of distinction is the aquaculture program here at KSU. There is a lot of interest right now in aquaponics, and we’re one of the leaders in aquaponics across the nation. We also have an outstanding organic and sustainable agricultural program. We work with organic vegetable production and organic hemp production for organic fiber, grain, and CBD. And of course, we have a number of horticultural crops, such as pawpaws and blackberries and nut crops. But we also work in animal science, including poultry science and our work with goats, which is one of our major animal science projects as we try to find the best grazing practices and ways to deal with parasite control. So, these are just a few of the programs that we work with directly to benefit Kentucky ag and small farmers in Kentucky.

Can we touch a bit on KSU’s role in extension?

We have one Kentucky extension service in the state, so both UK and KSU partner as that one extension service. We work very well together trying to make sure that we meet the needs of folks across Kentucky. Many times, you’re going to find KSU and UK extension agents in the same office, and you’re going to see us working together on various projects. It’s a wonderful partnership that we value greatly because we want to help Kentuckians as much as we can.

Partnerships are so critical in working hand-in-hand with other organizations. How important are these types of relationships to KSU?

They’re vital; extremely vital and valuable. We can do so much more together than we could do individually, and we’ve really tried to form as many partnerships as possible, including working with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, UK, Alltech, and Farm Bureau, to name a few. The private and public partnerships that we’ve formed to help with our research and extension initiatives all work to benefit the Commonwealth.

We probably couldn’t have a conversation right now without bringing up where we are with the COVID-19 pandemic and all the challenges that it has presented. How has KSU adapted to all the regulations pertaining to the coronavirus?

As has been the case with many other universities and companies, it has been a challenge. I think it has forced us to adapt quickly to technology so our extension efforts could continue, but through different channels, whether that’s Zoom or other technologies and social media. We continue to do some field research at our farm, but obviously this has definitely curtailed our ability to do research for this year, and I’m hoping that it will end in the foreseeable future. At this point, we’re still trying to do what needs to be done for Kentuckians, especially from an extension aspect. We’ve had to adapt, and adapt quickly, and we’ve been able to do that. With teaching, we’ve been able to migrate online for important classes. But we all hope to get back into the classroom. We all are hopeful for some normalcy in the fall, but at this point we’re still looking at several different plans and trying to weigh our options. The main thing is we want to provide great educational opportunities for the students. Whether that takes place online or in person, we’re going to do the best we can to offer those classes to our students.

What opportunities do you see in the future for KSU and its agricultural programs?

Kentucky has a great tradition of small family farms, and we want to do everything we can to support them. I think there are a lot of opportunities out there for people who are interested in farming. We may be changing crops, we may be changing the way we do things, or we may be using value-added products or creating more value-added products from some of those crops. But there are opportunities out there, and we're excited to work with those small farmers and define those new processes, crops, or cultural practices that we're going to need to keep the small family farm viable. We're committed to doing that.