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.