Looking at things from the ground up
Thirty-eight-year-old DeSoto County extension Director Ken Johnson has only been with the office for two years, but his practical nature and educational background are already serving the county well. Originally from the Phoenix, Ariz., metro area, Johnson said he always loved cattle and ranching, but there wasn't much ranching to be had around Phoenix. As a college student, Johnson worked in extension as a research specialist. His wife, Amber, a professional photographer, was originally from Florida, so when the extension director position opened in up Arcadia, the family was keen to take it. With a B.S. in environmental resources, range ecology and an M.S. in agribusiness from Arizona State University, it's clear Johnson loves learning. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in agronomy and weed science while working with researchers at the University of Florida's Range Cattle Research Education Center in Ona. He also has experience with biosolids (fertilizer produced from sewage), regulatory affairs with regards to water quality both in Arizona and Florida, and ranch planning.Johnson said his area of expertise is forage and weed science in relation to growing cattle. "As a professional agronomist, I look at things from the ground up," Johnson said. That means looking at soil health, then plant health, and ultimately animal health. The goal is to address the challenges in the production chain. And there are a lot of challenges, Johnson said, especially related to weed control, because when you fertilize in Florida, everything tends to grow better. That includes the weeds, which take up valuable grazing land and can even cause injury to cattle (think prickly blackberry bushes, considered a weed to ranchers because their thorns can cut the animals' legs). As a conservationist, Johnson is also interested in solutions that are as natural as possible. But finding solutions isn't enough. They have to be economically feasible solutions, which means Johnson has to tap into the agribusiness side of his background. A ranch owner himself, Johnson stated, "We have to do the best thing we can for the best return. Ultimately we have to make a living." Is it possible to practice conservation on a ranch and still come out ahead? "Absolutely," said Johnson without hesitating. "It's ultimately achievable to do the right the right way for the right reason and net a return." At the DeSoto county extension office, this father of three currently leads a team consisting of 4-H agent Kristie Popa, office manager Anna Beswick, two administrative assistants and a program assistant. In the past two years under Johnson, the office has started a master naturalist program, participated in youth field days, and helped the Arcadia garden club build a 40 foot by 80 foot demo garden. They are in the process of launching a master gardener program under Beswick. Johnson is also very involved in a broomsedge control project where scientists are working hard to find a way to inhibit the growth of this tall weed whose long, straw-like blades used to be lashed together and used as brooms. Since there are no chemical controls for broomsedge, researchers and Johnson are looking into alternative methods to inhibit growth, such as macro- and micronutrient or pH levels. But Johnson doesn't just get to keep learning on the job, he gets to teach, too. "We're educators," he said of extension staff. People help us to understand what they are struggling with and we offer research-based solutions and help people understand how those solutions work, he added. And if he doesn't know the answer to a question, Johnson is glad he's got the entire University of Florida to back him up. "I don't have to know everything about (a topic)," he explained with a smile. "I just have to know someone who knows everything about it."