When I arrived at the University of Maine in summer 2018, my calendar was packed with visits to 4-H camps, farms and agriculture-related companies. And the Fryeburg Fair.

At the HP Hood bottling plant, a person in charge of the daily milk delivery talked about the UMaine cows and their milk. That’s when I realized we had a dairy herd.

Looking back, those initial appointments made perfect sense. UMaine is rooted in agriculture. The first president of UMaine – then called the Maine State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts – doubled as the farm manager. In 1868, when it opened with 12 male students, the farm yielded 90 tons of hay and 1,100 bushels of potatoes.

Fast forward 150 years. I’m UMaine’s 21st president, and second female president. We’re a land, sea and space grant university dedicated to core values of inclusion, diversity, equity and anti-racism. Last fall, we welcomed 11,741 students from 50 states and 75-plus countries.

We still have a farm. And our Advanced Structures and Composites Center leads the way in aerospace, infrastructure, ocean energy and nanocomposites. Our Climate Change Institute informs our understanding of climate change, as well as how to prepare for its implications. Our engineering education facility is nearing completion. And we’re thrilled about the transformational opportunities the Harold Alfond Foundation’s $240 million investment in the University of Maine System will provide.

That investment includes $55 million (with a challenge to raise $50 million more) for the University of Maine Graduate and Professional Center, which will integrate programs across business, law, public policy, engineering and computing and information sciences. With the support of employers and others, the facility will host Maine Center programs and Maine Law on the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus.

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With all this, Cooperative Extension and 4-H are still among our most impactful and appreciated programs.

Cooperative Extension puts university research – in the form of practical solutions – to work in homes, businesses, farms and communities. Want to learn to grow cranberries? Or tap maple trees? Call us. And annually, 4-H engages 30,000 youth in hands-on educational and leadership programs – from robotics to animal science.

Last October, I was thrilled to receive the Seaman A. Knapp Award in recognition of my leadership and contributions to food and agricultural sciences. Doing research about Seaman Knapp for my speech, I learned his story and UMaine’s share similar themes.

Knapp, who lived from 1833 to 1911, was president of Iowa Agricultural College. He introduced the idea of cooperative demonstration farms, where farmers collaborated with scientists and officials to improve productivity. He sought to build a better future.

So do we.

My virtual Knapp Memorial Lecture – “Positives in Pandemics: The Increased Need and Importance of Extension During Times of Crisis” – highlighted some of the numerous ways that Cooperative Extension and 4-H serve Mainers during these extraordinary times. Here are a few.

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During the initial weeks of the pandemic, Cooperative Extension moved its workshops and events online and created resources – including 32 new publications – to support farmers and consumers. It helped build and promote the online Maine Farm and Seafood Products Directory so farmers and fishermen could get vegetables and fish to people, even as restaurants closed and other supply chains shrank.

When summer programs shuttered, our 4-H Camps and Learning Centers became food distribution centers. Staff created programs, including “Wednesdays in the Woods Outdoor Activities” for children and “QuaranTEEN” Virtual Science Cafes for youth to engage with university researchers about wildlife forensics, bio-inspired engineering and food science.

As UMaine worked to reopen last fall, Extension staff envisioned new possibilities for the Cooperative Extension Diagnostic and Research Laboratory. We obtained emergency Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments certification, and colleagues across the university developed in-house capacity to analyze the rapid COVID antigen tests.

During this pandemic, as we’re addressing racial inequality and ravaging climate change, it was cathartic to reflect on Seaman Knapp and draw connections between his contributions and UMaine’s. One lesson I learned: At all times, and especially during a pandemic, when we utilize science and engage professionals, communities, and young people to collaboratively frame problems and find solutions, we can significantly improve our world.


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