Former AgriLife Extension agent takes on new role in South Africa

ALMA, South Africa – A former Texas AgriLife Extension Service county agent is now farm manager for the Ukulima Farm Research Center in the Limpopo Province of South Africa.

Bob Whitney, who retired as an AgriLife Extension agent for agriculture for Williamson County and had previous agency positions in different counties, has been at the center in his new role since March.

Bob Whitney, a former Texas AgriLife Extension Service agent with extensive international agriculture experience, is working in cooperation with the Borlaug Institute as the new farm manager at Ukulima Farm Research Center in the Limpopo Province of South Africa. (Borlaug Institute photo)

The mission of the center, a partnership of the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture, part of the Texas A&M University System, is to promote African agricultural research and education, according to administrators. It supports science to increase African agricultural production, enhance rural livelihoods and conserve natural resources.

“The center is hoping to leverage scientific collaboration with African institutions and the private sector to serve the needs of local communities across the continent,” said Joseph King, Borlaug Institute associate director, College Station. “Its goal is to bring together localized knowledge of agricultural needs with the best available agricultural technology to produce results for those emerging farmers who are vital to the future of Africa.”

Whitney said his primary responsibility will be to ensure center researchers have everything they need to accomplish their research.

“I’ll be responsible for building storage, to farming the land for plots, to spraying for weeds and caring for livestock,” Whitney said. “Everything here is centered on research and what the researchers might need. We have many Texas A&M University research projects, as well as projects by other academic and private sector partners.”

He added that his role as farm manager also will involve assisting with AgriLife Extension-related activities, such as hosting groups or providing instruction or evaluation. Other activities may include short-term technical training programs and leadership seminars on development topics, as well as demonstrations and training programs to validate the use of center technology.

Ukulima Farm, where the center is located, was created to develop new models to address the diverse needs of agriculture in Africa and meet the food requirements of the more than 750 million sub-Saharan Africans. The Howard G. Buffett Foundation created the farm as a platform for organizations and researchers to develop technology and practices to advance African agriculture through developing and testing technology at-scale in an African context through the collaboration of various researchers and scientists.

“Our top challenge is to address soil fertility because African soils, on the whole, are very old and worn out,” said center director Dr. Jim Muir, Texas AgriLife Research, who previously worked at Texas AgriLife Reseach and Extension Center in Stephenville. “The second is conservation of natural resources, while increasing food production under increasingly inhospitable and variable climates.”

Muir oversees the Borlaug Institute’s long-term strategy focusing on center research activities, and has spent much of his life living and working in southern Africa.

“We were lucky to recruit Bob as farm manager,” Muir said. “He has farm experience, which is invaluable for running, maintaining and fixing machinery and structures, as well as for carrying out row-cropping, animal husbandry and natural resource management.

“As an added bonus, Bob’s many years in AgriLife Extension will contribute to Ukulima’s outreach efforts in the region. His experience with applied research is also useful to researchers who will be running projects at a distance from Ukulima.”

Whitney has extensive experience with international agriculture projects, including serving as in-country chief of party and project leader for the Borlaug Institute’s Iraq Agricultural Extension Revitalization project, as well as performing research and providing agricultural instruction in Honduras. He also has assisted many faith-based organizations with agriculture projects throughout the world.

“I have done lots of agriculture work in many countries developing training and demonstration projects focused on conserving soil, cropping systems, livestock production and marketing,”   Whitney said. “I’ll be using all my past farm and Extension experience to help researchers here with their projects.”

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