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Corinne Kephart may be new to the field of county agriculture agent, but she is hardly new in the field.
You could say, in fact, that Kephart, who was named in April to replace Brett Reese as the oracle for farming in Shelby County, has been out thereall her life, having most recently served as the horticulture agent at the Shelby County Extension office and before that as 4-H agent.
You could add, too, that she has raised registered beef cattle and that she rose among the Kentucky Cattlemen’s Association to be that organization’s first female president (matching her mother’s similar accomplishment in Indiana).
All of that is important, but really it all goes back to her growing up on a cattle and grain farm in central Indiana, when, on her fifth birthday, she received a show halter and show stick and got into the cattle showing business. That led her to 4-H, to FFA, to the University of Kentucky for an ag degree and now to being the person that everyone asks about any malady that creeps across the landscape of the hundreds of farms and gardens in the county.
Has she always seen she was destined for this role?
“When I got to college – I knew I had passion for animal ag – but the teaching side of things and being an advocate and a spokesperson – seeing the importance – that developed in college,” Kephart said. “Since that time, I would say so.”
You could say she has dived right into the job since the whirlwind process this spring in which she was hired. On Thursday morning Kephart could be found in cowboy boots and a soiled extension office T-shirt helping volunteers set up the livestock barn for the upcoming Shelby County Fair.
“See,” she said pointing to the stain, “I’ve already had one job that had some water and look what happened.”
She lifted steel dividers, directed the volunteers and used those plastic slip ties to bind together the dividers. You could tell who had done this before.
Having done it before is why Kephart emerged from a field of about 30 candidates, said Jeff Young, UK’s extension director for District 3, which includes Shelby County. Many of those were new college graduates and from other business fields, but he didn’t hesitate to say that Kephart was the right fit for the job.
“Corinne stood out among the candidates because of her experience,” Young said. “First, she had been an extension agent for several years…and then we looked at her leadership abilities with the cattlemen’s organization and other groups.
“She’s also been doing this all her life, growing up on a farm, raising beef cattle.”
‘A great mentor’
When Kephart graduated from UK in 1993, her first job was in Shelby County, as the 4-H agent. And during that time, she got some great preparation for her new job from Roy Catlett, the much-respected, longtime county agent who passed away earlier year.
“When I was in extension the first time, I had a great mentor in Roy Catlett, who was a very professional person and genuinely concerned for the clientele,” Kephart said. “He assumed a position of service, and that’s what extension is all about. He was a great mentor.”
Kephart is not, she quickly points out, the first woman to hold this job. Brittany Edelson was the ag agent for several years in Shelby, and she in fact also helped prepare Kephart for this job, during a period in the late 1990s, when Kephart had stepped away from the extension office.
“I got to be the 4H agent for three and a half years – 1993-96 – but I stayed involved in Shelby County ag after that,” she said. “I worked at Bagdad Roller Mills, and Brittany Edelson was the [county ag] agent here. We did a lot of joint programming together, and I learned a lot from that.”
Background for the job
Kephart, 41, returned to the extension office in 2009 as the horticulture agent, and that in some ways sodded another piece of preparative groundwork for this job – the part dealing with plants.
“Being hort tech for past three years helped, I think,” she said. “I acquired a lot of horticulture knowledge. So I have the animal science side and the horticulture side. The agronomy side is where I have to study.”
She said she also leans heavily on UK’s network of experts.
“We have a great resource in the university, of course,” she said. “The specialists are really good about researching. They watch trends. They’re good about sending out alerts.
“You can’t be a hundred percent in tune with every particular thing at a time, but in tobacco and grain, we have a wonderful group of specialists at UK that are awesome to work with.
“Shelby County is a good-sized tobacco county and real big grain county. So a lot of the job is related to that.”
That’s why Young said Kephart faces several challenges. “She has to help our farmers who out there trying to make a profit,” he said. “And she has to help the homeowners with their lawns and gardens. We have to help both of them.”
Since she took over after the whirlwind hiring process – Reese left in February and she was hired in March – she says the job has been busy, mostly with horticulture issues, involving trees, lawns, landscapes and a little bit of tobacco.
“I’ve been out six or eight times with tobacco,” she said. “There have been lots of phone calls, folks bringing things in, like a tray of tobacco out of a float bed or a leaf or a flower or a branch – a lot of diagnosis – a lot of picture via E-mail.”
And that’s one area in which the mentoring of Catlett way back when wouldn’t be much help.
“I’m big into the technology,” she said. “In fact, I have a microscope that’s USB connected. I haven’t gotten to use it yet, but I can use it in the field and have a specialist on other end give real-time analysis.
“I’m real excited to do that.”
And excitement, really, defines Kephart’s entire approach to this job. She lives near Cropper with two young children and is firmly entrenched in Shelby County and she approaches her job with an energy and enthusiasm because she loves the field and believes in her role as an extension agent.
“The thing I like most – and what I like most about extension – is the educational part,” Kephart said.” I like to help folks learn new practices or applications that help people be successful at home or on farm.
“I didn’t want to be a teacher because I didn’t want to be in school for rest of life. Now I can be an educator without being a teacher.”
And, perhaps more significantly, she can remain part of her roots on the farm.