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MSU fruit crops expert receives national award

October 29, 2012

Mississippi State University fruit crops expert Eric Stafne, shown here working in the field during his days at Oklahoma State University, recently received national recognition for his work on an online database for grape producers. (Submitted photo)

Mississippi State University fruit crops expert Eric Stafne has received the national 2012 eXtension Community of Practice Individual Achievement Award for his work as project director for the National Grape Community of Practice.

The eXtension online database aggregates research from extension service experts across America, offering data on nearly 60 subjects referred to as communities of practice. Stafne joined MSU in November 2011, he said, and he was working at Oklahoma State University in 2009 when he accepted the National Grape and Wine Initiative’s invitation to write a grant to start the NGCOP.

“In short, a community of practice is a group of people who have a shared passion or expertise in a particular area and want to learn how to improve what they do and convey it to others as they interact regularly,” Stafne said. “The GCOP is currently comprised of a North America-based group of professionals with expertise in commercial grape production. To date, the GCOP has 89 members from 31 states and Canada, who interact through a variety of online methods to collaboratively create content on the eXtension site.”

Stafne said each state involved in the NGCOP has a grape industry and a growing interest in grape production. Online information about such subjects may be ubiquitous, he said, but it is not always reliable, and the NGCOP fills the industry’s need for reliability.

“We develop educational information that is been scientifically tested,” Stafne said. “(The NGCOP) is also important because the group acts as a learning resource for all the extension specialists involved. We learn from each other, and forming the group has led to further collaboration on other projects too. Our future plans include working on video content as well as smartphone applications.”

Patricia Knight, director of MSU’s Coastal Research and Extension Center, said MSU was fortunate to recruit Stafne. She said she believes Stafne will be a boon to Mississippi fruit producers, because his knowledge extends beyond grapes.

“Eric has brought expertise in the small fruit area, an area where we needed expertise given the retirement of his predecessor,” Knight said. “He brings a fresh new viewpoint with his background, utilizing methods such as blogs and eXtension as well as more traditional presentations. He has already worked with clientele through a muscadine field day and a blueberry field day.”

Stafne said he still works on the NGCOP, because while its initial grant will end in 2014, the NGCOP and other communities of practice have no expiration date. The challenging part of the NGCOP, he said, is management of the many researchers involved.

“It can take a lot of effort to keep things going in the direction we want to go.  We are working in a new ‘environment’ — online — that most of us are not used to doing. So, that means we need to learn something new, and most of us have little time to do that. However, the results have been rewarding, and I believe that groups that work collaboratively, as we do, are in the vanguard of Cooperative Extension efforts.”

Stafne said he now works primarily with blueberry growers in Mississippi, and he is a member of the National Blueberry Community of Practice, led from Louisiana State University. Knight said MSU collaborated with LSU on the NBCOP, and eXtension is a valuable resource for all of MSU’s extension agents.

Stafne said he is also working on a “Northern Grapes Project” out of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. He said northern states like New York and southern states like Mississippi share similar limitations in their ability to grow certain types of grapes.

“So, we have a lot to learn — and in turn implement — from a project like this,” Stafne said. “(Another project I am working on) is a grape genetics project that will identify the genes that control certain traits in grapevines, (which is) potentially very important for the grape industry in states where conditions do not allow for certain types of premium grapes to be grown.”

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