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National ag event to be held in city

January 13, 2019

While nine months may seem like a long period to some, it’s just around the corner for Kelly Heckaman.

Since 2015, Heckaman, a Purdue Extension agricultural educator in Kosciusko County, and her colleagues have been planning the National Association County Agricultural Agents annual professional improvement conference.

The conference : scheduled for Sept. 8-12 at Grand Wayne Center : will host about 1,000 Purdue Extension agents, who share research and information from campuses and conferences with their local communities.

“We see this as such an outstanding opportunity to showcase Purdue Extension, what we do in Indiana and what a great agricultural support system we have in Indiana,” Heckaman said.

Heckaman and Scott Gabbard, Shelby County Extension educator, are co-chairs for this year’s conference.

In the 103 years of the annual meeting, Indiana has never hosted the event. When Indiana extension educators agreed to host the event four years ago, both Fort Wayne and Indianapolis placed bids to host.

Dan O’Connell, president and CEO of Visit Fort Wayne, said 1,000 visitors could bring $1 million to the Fort Wayne economy based on hotel, restaurant and other related spending.

During the five-day period, extension agents will network with educators across the country. At least two days will be dedicated to educational breakout sessions, where agents showcase their own community’s work through presentations and posters.

“When you attend one of those sessions, the idea is that you can create programming in your home community and home county,” Heckaman said.

Examples include ranching, gardening and agricultural economics.

The event includes a trade show, where agents can connect with allied industries for additional resources.

But the highlight each year is tour day, which allows attendees to experience agriculture in the host state.

There are 23 scheduled tours that will highlight Indiana agriculture and businesses unique to Fort Wayne.

Country Heritage Winery, Homestead Dairy, Hoosier Shrimp Farm and Kurtz Produce are on the tour list.

Jessica Dennis, manager of Country Heritage in LaOtto, said visiting extension agents will be able to see the wine-making process inside the facility and the agricultural side in the vineyards.

Dennis sees the tour as a way to highlight Indiana as an agricultural state.

“I think it’s just a way to get our name out there and show the recognition of northern Indiana, and showing everyone Indiana can be an agriculture state as far as grapes,” Dennis said.

On tour day, Matt Kurtz will show agents around Kurtz Produce, which is owned by his father. The tour will consist of walk-throughs of the produce field, washing and sorting area and the greenhouse.

Kurtz said he likes to keep the tours interactive so both guides and guests can have fun.

“We always enjoy showing people how their food is grown,” Kurtz said. “I like to explain the process and then ask for questions.”

Planning an event for the first time is challenging, but Heckaman said it’s been a great learning experience.

One challenge she and Gabbard have faced is raising money through event sponsorship.

“Part of that challenge is when you start planning an event four years in advance, most people aren’t going to be eager to provide sponsorship dollars so far for you in advance,” Heckaman said.

Both the host state and national association work to raise funds to make it affordable for the extension agents to attend.

Once September nears, Heckaman said another challenge may be finding enough volunteers to staff the event.

Heckaman has more than 15 committees to help with logistics, whether it be tours, promotions, sponsorship or the trade show.

“I think underlying every month of this nine months is just going to be this excitement for all of us to have this meeting actually happen,” Heckaman said. “If you’ve worked on it for four years, you’re kind of like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s really here!’”

cstefanski@jg.net

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