Michael Wheeler's debut column: Adding color to gardens
The new Hall County Extension agent has only been on the job for a few days. But he already knows his way around town.
Michael Wheeler, 35, grew up in Gainesville and returned to Hall County on April 1 after nine years running the Gilmer County extension office. Already, he's bumping into old friends from high school and relearning the back roads on his way to meet farmers.
Coming into a county with such a diverse agricultural base will be difficult, Wheeler said.
But that's part of what drew him back to Gainesville.
"Hall County is a huge challenge, geographically and demographically," he said. "... I felt that I was ready for a new challenge. I could have stayed in Gilmer County. I was happy there, had a good client base. But I think sometimes you just have to get out of your box and expand a bit."
Wheeler is a fourth generation University of Georgia graduate, and hanging on one of his office walls is a wood-carved bulldog plaque. It was given to him by a friend whose father, longtime extension agent C. Lloyd Smith, had once hung it in his office.
Wheeler started settling into his new office and position this week by meeting with local businesses and farmers. He said he didn't come into the position with any specific initiatives in mind, but knows he wants to keep the extension office focused on community-driven projects, which have always been well-received and supported. For example, the Master Gardeners Spring Garden Expo is taking place this weekend.
"They've put it on without an Ag agent here and that's huge," he said. "It shows the dedication that the Master Gardeners have to the expo and to this office."
Wheeler said he also is excited to work with the county's homeowner population, which is diverse compared to the community he served in Gilmer County.
"(In Hall County) we've got folks who are, they have a little bit of a flower garden and that's all they want and that's fine," he said. "And then we've got folks who can spend the money on a really huge elaborate setup. So the needs are different."
One of his most successful projects in Gilmer County was the implementation of a pest-management tracking program with local apple growers. Wheeler hired an individual to track the insect populations at several farms, information that was digitized and allowed for farmers to streamline their pesticide spraying process.
"If I started seeing some trends I wasn't sure about I could call up Athens and talk to our entomologist and say ‘Get online and look at this with me,'" Wheeler said. "... Then there was years of database and (the farmers) can look at their farm and see how they compared year to year to year."
It's those one-on-one interactions Wheeler said have kept him with the extension for 11 years.
"You're always learning new facets whether it be about growing soybeans and corn or turf grass and petunias. You're always learning. And I think that's a really nice aspect of the job," Wheeler said.
"Where some jobs, you get your base knowledge and you just maintain, here things are always changing."