Supporting Rural Students

CAES Rural Scholars Program will help recruit Georgia's most qualified rural students

A new scholarship program benefitting qualified students from rural areas of Georgia who seek to earn degrees from the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES) is now recruiting students for its first cohort to begin in fall 2021.

Gifts and pledges totaling $250,000 each from CAES alumnus and UGA trustee Keith Kelly (BSA — Agricultural Economics, ’80) and CAES alumnus Robert Varnedoe (BSA — Animal Science, ’83) have launched the initiative. Contributions from these two alumni will each endow one CAES Rural Scholars Fund, one annual scholar and provide resources for recruitment efforts.

The annual academic scholarship of $7,000 per year will assist in recruiting the most qualified students from rural communities in the state of Georgia who have excelled academically, have shown strong leadership abilities and community service, and seek a degree at CAES. A cohort of four to six students will be selected for the program each fall.

“The Rural Scholars Program will offer students from rural areas of Georgia a first-class undergraduate experience at UGA. Modeled after the university’s most prestigious fellowships and scholarships, the Rural Scholars Program is designed to give exceptional students from rural communities unique learning opportunities inside and outside the classroom,” said Josef Broder (BSA — Agricultural Economics, ’71), associate dean for academic affairs at CAES.

Building on the success of similar UGA merit scholarship programs, the Rural Scholars Program will provide support for participating students through the cohort model, staff support and co-curricular programming. Scholars may have the opportunity to participate in additional activities to enhance the college experience, such as the Freshman College Summer Experience and experiential learning opportunities, supported by grants, that allow students to learn outside the classroom.

In addition, CAES Rural Scholars are eligible to participate in UGA’s ALL Georgia program, which was created in 2018 to provide resources and support for students from rural areas. These resources include academic support and tutoring, networking, social activities with students throughout campus, and introductions to a collaboration of partners to enhance students’ experience and success.

The Roots of Philanthropy

Kelly’s family tree has deep roots in Georgia agriculture and, although he didn’t grow up on a farm, he spent many summers and holidays on his maternal grandfather’s dairy farm in Morgan County and learning farming from uncles on both sides of the family.

After high school, he spent two years at Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, then took a year off to work on the farm until his grandfather encouraged him to finish his education.

Kelly enrolled at UGA CAES, earning his bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics in 1980. Kelly has built a successful, multifaceted agricultural company based in Morgan County, some of it on the same land his grandfather bought in the 1930s.

Kelly Products started with agrichemicals and now spans agricultural business and data systems, agrochemical production and marketing, consumer agribusiness, dairy and crop farming, landscaping services and a thriving retail store called Farmview Market that serves as a showcase for locally raised produce, meat, dairy and other Georgia-grown agricultural products.

Kelly was inspired to create a scholarship program at that will prepare students from rural areas with a robust, multifaceted education at CAES that they can take back to their communities so they can continue to adapt and progress, revitalizing areas that have lost population as the agricultural landscape has shifted.

Specific Challenges

While students from rural areas may be as academically qualified, they may lack the opportunity to take as many AP courses as students from more populated areas if the small school systems they attend do not have the resources to offer the same programs.

According to the 2018-2019 Why Rural Matters report published by national nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust, roughly half of all rural students in the U.S. attend school in just 10 states, including some of the most populous urban states. Georgia has the third-largest number of rural students in the nation at 26.7% of public-school students — approximately 463,129 students — just behind North Carolina and Texas.

According to the report, average instructional spending for each rural student in Georgia is $5,681, below the U.S. average of $6,367 per rural student.

“The thought process behind this scholarship program is to offer to rural students what is already available by taking into account community involvement and leadership in school programs or clubs in addition to high academic achievement,” Kelly said.

CAES alumnus Robert Varnedoe

CAES alumnus Robert Varnedoe

Enthusiastic about the project, Kelly enlisted the participation of his friend Varnedoe to endow the first scholarship funds. Varnedoe, who also transferred from ABAC to UGA, grew up in Barney, a town of about 150 people in south Georgia’s Brooks County.

“Personally, I feel a strong desire to help students in agriculture. I think that it is still a great opportunity for young people to continue in a field that is near and dear to my heart and that is changing with the times,” said Varnedoe, CEO of Lee Container, which supplies containers to the agrichemical industry. “We don’t focus enough of our resources on rural areas and I am proud to be able to offer more opportunities for rural students to succeed. These students are the future of agriculture and agribusinesses in our state and beyond, and this will provide them with a strong education to carry them and the industry forward.”

A Broad Perspective

James Woodard (BSA — Agricultural Education, ’87) is a longtime agricultural educator and administrator from Morgan County who now serves as director of agricultural education and chairperson of the National FFA Board of Directors and as National FFA advisor with the National Council for Agricultural Education.

“I believe this scholarship will benefit those students who are both high academic achievers and who have a deep portfolio of experience, leadership, service and skill in their communities. By considering these whole-student attributes, I believe there is a lot that can be achieved through this scholarship,” Woodard said. “When students are able to determine what they want to achieve, they end up owning their education plans. If it is relevant and real and personal to you, then you really are able to turn on your passion to become rather than just to do.”

The events of the past few months and the disruptions to the food chain triggered by the COVID-19 crisis have brought the weaknesses in industrial food systems into sharp focus, Kelly said.

“I think agriculture has to make some major shifts if we are going to have rural communities and family farms remaining at all,” Kelly said. “The traditional model was OK for so many years, but it is not working anymore, and we’ve got to shift and find models that will work for the future. Part of that goal is to get young people to understand the need to go back to their communities and start something.”

He said it is important to educate the public — including the industry’s future leaders — on what modern-day food production and agriculture entails.

“We need to communicate the value of farmers and the whole agricultural system to our country’s well-being. I am excited about the future and this scholarship and what it could mean for these students and the future of agriculture,” Kelly said.

Information on the scholarship and an application timeline is available at To support the CAES Rural Scholarship Program, visit or contact Mary Ann Parsons, senior director of development for CAES, at