URI Cooperative Extension selected to help build region’s agriculture workforce of the future

Kate Venturini Hardesty one of 13 selected nationwide for workforce development network at land-grant universities

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 3, 2024 – Who’s going to preserve, acquire and farm New England fields in the future?

That’s one of the questions Kate Venturini Hardesty, of the University of Rhode Island’s Cooperative Extension, is hoping to find answers to. The West Greenwich resident has been selected as one of 13 coordinators from land-grant universities to participate in the new AgriProspects Workforce Development Network by the Extension Foundation.

Hardesty is an administrator and educator for a number of workforce development programs offered through Cooperative Extension at URI, including Energy Fellows, the Home Horticulture Certificate, Invasive Plant Management Certification and Rhode Island Agriculture and Food Systems Fellows. On staff at the University since 2005, Hardesty brings to URI a passion for translating scientific findings into practical information that professionals and the broader public can use.

AgriProspects, as the effort is called, aims to foster regional cooperation, identify workforce ecosystem gaps, and offer collaborative, adaptive solutions to local and regional employment challenges. The work is supported through a USDA grant.

Now a new role is having her look beyond our small state and the million people living here, to take inventory of existing agricultural workforce development programs at all 112 land-grant institutions in the U.S. with her fellow coordinators.

Hardesty was recently selected as the Northeast region content coordinator for AgriProspects, a workforce development network formed to foster national cooperation, identify workforce gaps, and offer solutions to employment challenges within the agricultural sector in the United States.

Lisa Townson, associate dean of extension and agricultural programs in the College of the Environment and Life Sciences, says that the unique national Cooperative Extension system can help tackle these looming workforce issues.

Extension programs exist in all states and most counties across the U.S., offering an established network that can help fill future needs in the field-to-plate pipeline.

“We are deeply engaged in the communities we are in because our educators live and work locally, long-term and are deeply trusted,” says Townson. She says AgriProspects is part of a concerted national effort to strengthen workforce development in several areas: agriculture, environmental stewardship, food systems and in the nonprofit sector.

“URI is proud to have an active role in this project as well as other programs like 4-H youth development, nutrition education, food safety, and food recovery,” she says. “The work we do here not only improves the lives of Rhode Islanders, but also impacts the rest of the region and country, both now and in the future.”

The collaborative project is supported through funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in efforts to build the nation’s capacity to respond to the changing needs in the food and agriculture sector. Hardesty will work with other regional coordinators to create a clearinghouse to boost workforce development in agriculture, align Cooperative Extension offerings with industry needs, and boost skill-development programs for participants to join or rejoin the “ag” workforce.

The new $10 million national grant-funded initiative launched in September, and will be applied over a five-year period, so the work is just beginning.

“In the Northeast, our agricultural sector is small, diverse and challenged by land availability and an aging producer population,” Hardesty says. “This push to encourage a resurgence in interest in agricultural careers is driven by the fact that we all need food. And ideally, we should produce it locally. We need a diverse workforce with interdisciplinary training to manage the food system itself and support all aspects of it.”

Hardesty hopes that sharing information about efforts like the Agriculture and Food Systems Fellows Program for URI and Community College of Rhode Island students will inspire other land-grant institutions to replicate it.

“A big part of the AgriProspects initiative is ensuring that all 112 land-grant institutions, especially those serving Black and Indigenous communities, are seated at the table where funding decisions and program investments are decided on and implemented,” she says. “We want to build equity across the Cooperative Extension system, shoring up our impact to build the next generation of the agricultural workforce in the U.S.”

Hardesty’s experience developing workforce development programs at URI for students and professionals make her well-qualified for the coordinator position, in which she will represent the Northeast.

“The programs we have at URI fall within this framework already,” she says. “This work will position Cooperative Extension as a leader in workforce development around agriculture and the food system in the U.S.”

For more information, visit extension.org/national-programs-services/workforce/ or contact Hardesty at keventurini@uri.edu, 401-874-4096.