A Conversation with Incoming CAES Dean Nick T. Place

Southscapes sat down with newly appointed CAES Dean and Director Nick Place to discuss his impending arrival in January, his plans for his first months at CAES, and his vision for the future of the college and the outlook for agriculture.

Southscapes: What opportunities do you see for the future of agriculture in Georgia and around the world?

Place: Technology is the big one for sure. This is something that has national opportunities — as well as a lot of opportunities in Georgia — to advance what we are doing in precision agriculture and what we can do to connect to the nexus of food safety, agriculture and medicine. Food is medicine and I want to see the work being done at UGA to continue. We need to work on the connections between food and the environment and agriculture and be at the forefront of creating sustainable practices. There are tremendous opportunities in all of those areas to advance what we do in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Southscapes: How will you define your priorities to help the college prepare for the future?

One of the main questions I heard while I was interviewing for the position was, “What will you do in your first 100 days if you’re named dean?” I plan to spend my first few months getting to know the people, programs and facilities that are available to us.

I’d like to spend quite a bit of time listening and hearing from people. I want to know what the people of CAES see as opportunities and figure out how we best move forward to take advantage of them. There is tremendous value in that and, based on what I hear from faculty, staff and stakeholders, we will devise a strategic plan for the college. My goal is, about a year from now, to have a strategic plan laid out that will ensure that the college is regarded as a national leader among colleges of agriculture.

Southscapes: As agriculture has evolved in the U.S., small producers have faced increasing challenges staying viable. How can CAES help those producers while contributing to best practices in traditional agriculture?

Growing up on a small dairy farm, I have the perspective of being a small producer and I still have connections to those producers, but we need to be able to connect and work with all producers — large, small and those in-between. There is a place for everyone and a need for all types of producers.

There are opportunities for small producers to connect directly with consumers through Consumer Supported Agriculture (CSAs) and direct marketing, such as the Agricultural Products Connection program that UGA Cooperative Extension and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Georgia Grown created over the summer to enable smaller producers to connect directly with consumers. There are tremendous opportunities for the college to take advantage of programs like that — working with producers to understand the various economic aspects of that industry, offering business planning through Extension, and examining production practices to make sure they are effective and sustainable. It is our role to work with small and large producers to make sure they are using best management practices in an effort to improve the agriculture industry overall.

Southscapes: How do you feel the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the weaknesses in our country’s food chain and how do you think that will influence agricultural research going forward?

The COVID-19 situation has shed light on issues and opportunities that we face as an industry. As a result, people are more cognizant of our local and national food system and where their food comes from. This presents the opportunity to be more intentional about making people understand how we get food from farms to the market. That doesn’t occur by happenstance. There is a lot of effort and work that goes into it, and we have an obligation to help the public understand what it takes. We also can use this as an avenue to recruit more young people into agricultural science who can come in and work on things like breeding the next important crops, food safety, and food processing and handling. We need incredible minds, scientists and leaders to move our food system into the future.

“We need incredible minds, scientists and leaders to move our food system into the future.”

Southscapes: How do you think we can best showcase careers in agricultural and environmental fields to better diversify our student body?

It comes back to making sure young people see the opportunities that are in front of them in agricultural sciences at large. When you talk about the food system, that encompasses everything from food production to consumption and everything in between. We need outstanding scientists from both rural and urban areas who can come in and see the wealth of opportunity that is there.

Through Extension, we must work closely with 4-H and FFA on career development and we can use those youth organizations to connect with young people and help them see the future of agricultural sciences. We must work with agencies and agricultural organizations and companies to get students out into internships and practicums so they can see what the career opportunities are. We need to do this in a very experiential way so that youth will envision themselves in those careers and see what is needed to get into those types of careers.

Southscapes: What careers in agricultural and environmental fields do you see as holding the most future promise?

The first thing that comes to mind is water. Water is one of those things that we take for granted way too often, and we are going to come to a point where water will be more valuable than oil. We need to think about what can be done to protect water supplies and the quality of water, to lessen the requirement for water in irrigation of crops and landscapes. Some of that is going to come from breeding crops and turf that require less water, or turf alternatives.

Water conservation and water quality are going to be major fields in regard to finding ways to lessen fertilizer, septic and chemical runoff and other kinds of industrial waste that goes into polluting the water supply. Science education and public education will be critical, and it is going to take a lot of research, in many arenas, to help us advance in those spaces. Beyond water, we have forestry and natural resources that we need to protect for recreation and other needs.

Southscapes: How will you approach marshaling the resources and talent at CAES to help raise the college’s reputation in the U.S. and around the world?

Strengthening communications is one of the areas that was mentioned often during my conversations with faculty and staff during the interview process. We will put together strategies to advance what we do in communications as a whole and with targeted communications coming out of the dean’s office used to update our constituents about what is going on within the college. We need to be very present on social media, making sure that we are putting things out on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, which is where many people are getting information.

We also want to be sure that we have a presence with legislators and stakeholders of the college. We need to understand where we are heading and who we need to partner with to move the college forward. To figure out how we leverage our resources, we need to get a lay of the land about where we are and where we need to go, then have an intentional plan to communicate all of that.

I am very much looking forward to getting to Athens and hitting the ground running. I have been impressed by the number of calls and emails and other forms of contact, including handwritten notes, from people welcoming me. I have a great deal of appreciation and respect for UGA and CAES and I cannot help but be excited about getting to work with the outstanding people there to take the college to a whole new level.