CORVALLIS, Oregon — There wasn’t a second of hesitation in his answer when Dr. Roger Rennekamp was asked why he decided to seek the directorship of Ohio State University Extension.
“Clearly, OSU is at the top of land grant universities across the country and the Extension Service is the same. They just play an amazing leadership role nationally in terms of guiding higher education into the future and particularly the Extension Outreach through its agents. OSU is a progressive, forward-thinking land grant university,” he said.
Rennekamp, the associate dean for Outreach and Engagement at Oregon State University, will begin his new duties at Ohio State Jan. 4. He replaces Keith Smith, who retired June 30 after 23 years in the position. Rennekamp will be the 12th leader of OSU Extension, overseeing nearly 700 employees and a $71 million budget. Extension is the outreach arm of the college.
In an interview with Civitas Media’s Rural Life Today, Rennekamp said he is looking forward to meeting and working with farmers throughout Ohio, and has already gotten to know many of the state’s Extension educators in recent visits to OSU and a conference in West Virginia.
But Ohio State isn’t new to Rennekamp. He received his Ph.D. from the university 30 years ago. “So it is exciting to be coming back, even to the same building where I had my graduate assistantship in the mid-1980s,” he said.
He also is very familiar with rural communities.
A sense of humility
Before taking on his current role in Oregon State’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences, Rennekamp led Oregon’s 4-H Youth Development program. He served as an Extension specialist in program and staff development and as a program specialist for 4-H at the University of Kentucky. He earned his B.S from the University of Kentucky and his M.S. from Morehead State University. He said this experience is key to working in rural communities — it helps develop a sense of humility.
“My very first job in the Extension Service was in Maysville, Kentucky. I worked as a county extension agent in Maysville in Mason County for about six years. I have a lot of great relationships with my colleagues across the river in Brown and Adams counties, along the Ohio side of the river,” he said.
“One of the things I really had an appreciation for was that all the places I have been over the course of my life have been rural communities. I developed a very special relationship toward those rural communities, working in Maysville,” he pointed out. He said that his wife grew up in Eastern Kentucky, a very rural part of the state.
He said that working in those rural communities, “Gave me the foundation of how to work with people, in partnership with people. This has been so important to me. One of the things I think that any extension staff needs to realize is that in working with communities you have to have a strong dose of humility. You don’t want to be the ‘university expert or know-it-all.’ There is so much knowledge in the communities themselves that you have to respect in our work. So a dose of humility is very important for an extension worker to have, and I have that in working in field positions over the years.”
A phrase that Rennekamp says often sums up his feelings about working with rural communities: “We can learn as much as we teach, and we need to listen as much as we talk.”
An idea person
In announcing that Rennekamp would be coming to OSU, Bruce A. McPheron, Ohio State’s vice president for agricultural administration, said, “Roger’s enthusiasm and energy will help create the Extension organization of the future.”
Does he see himself as a “high energy” person?
“Absolutely. I think that is the way a lot of people describe me. I bring a lot of energy to the job. Often, when you think of possibilities, I like to think of how we can do better and what are the future possibilities … how can we continue to improve on what we do.
“I like to think that OSU Extension is as important today as it was 100 years ago when it was created in 1914. The need is just as great. The issues have changed. Sometimes even the audience has changed a little bit . I think any organization need to be looking 15-16 years into the future to figure out — if these trends continue, what do we need to do now to ensure we are well prepared for that?
“I see myself as an idea person, looking at possibilities for what we need to be doing now to prepare for the future,” Rennekamp said.
The future course
When asked what he envisions for OSU Extension five to 10 years down the road, Rennekamp was quick to focus on a handful of issues he feels are important for the university, Ohio agriculture and and its citizens.
He said one area that is key is engagement of the broader university as a partner in the work that the Extension Service does. “Clearly our Extension Service is based in the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences, but a large, extensive land grand university like OSU has such a world of expertise and knowledge that extends to and is embedded at other colleges at the university.
“One of the things that I intend to do is to do is engage the leaders in the other colleges on campus on the mission of Extension. I think that we have 101 years of experience working on the ground with the people of Ohio and there are probably lessons that can be learned from those at OSU Extension in experience with working in communities. While at the same time, the same as engaging in the communities we need to recognize that there may be some new ways, some new ideas that other campus units have used that they have that would benefit us,” he pointed out.
“We need to reach into the university to make sure that the knowledge expertise is used as appropriate. We need to engage more,” he said.
Another area Rennekamp has a passion for is the idea of “food systems … all the way from the decisions a farmer might have on what to producer to the consumers. I think that this notion of food systems will be a big piece of what we will be looking at nationally for Extension and here in Ohio,” he predicted.
He said that the flip side of local food systems is feeding the world and the role that American agriculture and institutions like Ohio State University play in making sure that people around the world have enough to eat will be important for our future, especially, “dealing with issues like food insecurity and hunger around the world. We are local, but also global at the same time.”
Rennekamp said that people need to realize that food is medicine as well, and there is value in upstream preventative work like making sure that people have a healthy diet and food to eat. “Agriculture is now in the health spotlight in a positive way and we can be part of the solution to issues like obesity and chronic diseases,” he said.
He added that in the future, OSU Extension should play a greater role in helping the public sift through the wealth of information on Social Media. He said 100 years ago the problem was a lack of information to the public — now the problem is too much information.
“People want to know now where they can go to get help to sort through all the different information. They know the Extension Service can be trusted. We have unbiased information to the degree that anyone can be unbiased. We have information that people can use to make an informed decision.”
Water quality debate
Rennekamp was asked if he was familiar with the issue of Ohio water quality, algal bloom contamination and OSU Extension’s role in dealing with the problem
“I have been briefed on those issues and I am very excited about that. One of the things that I experienced out in Oregon in the 10 years I was out there was the focus on water quality and watersheds that I had not previously seen emphasized as much. Just as prominent as the county name in Oregon was the watershed a person lived in, which was a whole new way of looking at things for me,” he said.
“Hopefully my experiences with watersheds in Oregon will help prepare me for the water quality issues in Ohio. I look forward to getting to Ohio to learn more about some of the specific actions that OSU has been involved in over time.”
Regarding the different views on how to resolve the state’s water quality issue, Rennekamp said first they have to get all the participants at the table. “I am aware that this is a controversial issue in Ohio and at Ohio State. It is an issue I will be immersed in fairly quickly.”
Does he see the state’s water quality issue as his number one challenge coming into his new position? “I would say that it certainly would be among the top two or three items that will be things I will be engaged in very quickly.”
Diverse ag community
Ohio has a unique mix of large farms and small farms, production methods, GMO, non-GMO and organic growers and a wide variety of produce from corn to hops and cattle to goats. Rennekamp was asked how he sees OSU Extension reaching out to serve such a diverse agriculture community.
”One of the things that is important in Ohio, and is an asset, is the diverse agriculture economy in this state. Diversity in agriculture is a strength. But it is certainly a challenge for a university like Ohio State to channel its resources in ways that support all the agricultural enterprises in the state. It will be our commitment to provide research, support and information in all of these areas, and continue to do this,” he said.
“The need for Extension is as great as any time in its hundred-year history,” according to Rennekamp. “Extension of the next century must remain true to key principles of community engagement and responsiveness while embracing approaches and technologies that will increase its reach and impact.”
Gary Brock can be reached at 937-556-5759 or on Twitter at GBrock4.
Dr. Roger Rennekamp,