One day, Haley Richardson Treadway went into her office and found a plastic bag full of bugs on her desk. In most cases, this would seem like part of a prank, but for Richardson Treadway, it was just another day on the job as Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Agent for Hamilton County.
The role of an extension agent is to act as an agricultural and environmental expert or teacher that works with the community to solve issues such as preventing erosion or identifying pests -- which is why that bag of insects was on her desk that day.
Agents are employed through land-grant universities, which are higher-education institutions designated to teach agriculture, among other subjects. In Tennessee, these agents are connected to the University of Tennessee, and they're trained to help community members with their unique environments, whether rural or urban.
Here, Richardson Treadway discusses her position and provides advice on how to care for plants.
The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Chatter Magazine: How would you describe your role as an Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Agent?
Haley Richardson Treadway: Every county across the state of Tennessee has an extension office, so they have agents. Even though we hold the same titles, our jobs can look vastly different. Because I'm in an urban county, so much of what I do is really horticultural or at the residential scale. People can call me for pest identification, disease identification; farmers will call for the same issues or ... if they have questions or issues with their livestock or their crops. A big thing that we do at this office a lot is soil sampling or soil testing.
Chatter: What does a typical day look like for you as an extension agent?
Richardson Treadway: There might be one week where I'm going out and doing five different farm visits. There might be another week where I'm doing totally residential homeowner [work], and there might be some days where I'm just literally sitting at my desk taking call after call after call. I'm not yet to a point where I can define what a normal day looks like. But a good day is always one where I get to get outside. And it's not rare that I get to do that, so I have a lot of good days.
Chatter: What advice do you have for people to care for their plants?
Richardson Treadway: Get your soil test done. That is where I would start. Come in and get a soil test done, because everyone's situation is going to be different, and so that's just a great starting point. ... [Also] being flexible, being adaptive and being responsive, that's what's going to give you success right now, especially in our East Tennessee [weather] conditions.
Chatter: How can Hamilton County residents care for the environment around them?
Richardson Treadway: I think in so many ways, especially when we're considering the context of climate change ... there are all kinds of things that we can do whether it's planting native [plant species] or providing wildlife habitats or not focusing so much on the aesthetics of our yards -- [instead] focusing on the ecological function of our yards. Are we providing food and habitat for our songbirds or for our native insects that can feed on maybe more pest-type bugs? That's a really tangible way to make a difference.
Chatter: How do you and your department serve low-income residents of Hamilton County?
Richardson Treadway: This is something that is a priority for us, and we are definitely pursuing. Because it's so true that to have property assumes a certain level of wealth, and so we really want to pay good attention to the intersectionality of the work that we do. One program we [do] is container bucket tomato production specifically geared towards those low-income communities who may not have access [to gardening resources] otherwise. So we're providing [buckets, soil and tomato seeds], and we're going to be doing some trials to see how accessible [the program is] for people.
To learn more about Hamilton County's extension office programs, visit hamilton.tennessee.edu.
Soil that ex-seeds your expectations
A soil test will assess your soil's fertility, determining the level of essential nutrients and the relative acidity. It will also help make recommendations on how much fertilizer to add, depending on what you want to grow -- fruits trees, vegetables or flowers, for example. You can obtain soil sample boxes from the Hamilton County Extension Office at 6183 Adamson Circle. Or, order them online at ag.tennessee.edu/spp. Cost is $15 per sample.