Diversity defines expertise, roles of new extension agent

Preserving farmland tops Tungate's list of priorities
Jul. 14, 2013 @ 05:01 AM

The new agricultural agent for Lee County is an expert in sustainable energy, planting crops and how the two intertwine.

Kim Tungate, who has a Ph.D. in agronomy and plant ecology from N.C. State University, has been on the job with the Lee County Cooperative Extension for about two weeks as the successor to former agent Brenda Larson.

"Kim brings a variety of experiences — everything from agronomics to biofuels to local foods," said Susan Condlin, the county extension director.

Tungate, 43, lives in Chatham County with her husband, Michael, and their pets. She previously worked at N.C. State's Solar Center. She was born in Indiana, where her grandparents were farmers, but has been in North Carolina for 18 years.

Tungate said she's interested in showing local farmers how to diversify their crops with useful but locally uncommon plants like canola, sunflowers, sesame, flax, chickpeas and more. She would also love to help local farms become more energy efficient, she said.

But first things first: meeting local farmers and helping however she can to maintain the area's agricultural heritage.

"My number-one priority here is to keep farmland as farmland," she said. "Preservation. Keeping it in the family. ... My job is really to ensure the best education [farmers] can get to be profitable and environmentally sustainable."

Having grown up around Midwestern farmers makes her at ease getting down and dirty in the field, she said, while her education gives her perspective on trends and opportunities in agriculture. One of those is starting solar farms. None are located in Lee County, she said, but there are several in other parts of the state and the time is right to invest.

A solar farm, she said, is basically created when a farmer puts solar panels on a pasture or in fields with crops growing in between. The energy it harvests can be sold to power companies, creating a greener power grid while also earning farmers money on something that takes very little day-to-day work and is about half as expensive to start up as it was just a few years ago.

"It's a seven- or eight-year investment," Tungate said. "The price of solar is going down; it used to be about 15 years. Plus, you don't do anything. It's guaranteed against the weather, too."

Tungate said the farmers she has met here so far are serious and knowledgeable about their business, which will help her focus on the bigger picture instead of dealing with smaller problems. But many of the crops she's interested in promoting are dry-ground plants, she said, so the rain is putting a stop to some of that.

Condlin said that until it stops raining, the amount of water on and in the ground will remain the county's top agricultural problem.

"It's desperate now," she said. "It's really getting desperate."