By Kelly Morgan
Katie Ashley is joining the Cooperative Extension team in Jackson and Swain counties as the new plant agriculture and horticulture agent. Originally from Vero Beach, Florida, she and her husband, Taylor, are now living in Macon County.
Ashley, 28, received her bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, also completing a minor in environmental studies. She joined the Peace Corps, where she worked on community development in Nicaragua, focusing on community health initiatives and community gardens. In the Peace Corps, Ashley said she learned a great deal about how to both rely on a community and integrate into one.
In 2017, she joined AmeriCorps, working to control invasive species in national and state parks in the southwestern United States.
She moved to Maine where she earned her master’s degree in botany and plant pathology from the University of Maine. As she went through the coursework in her master’s program, she honed in on cooperative extension work.
Immediately before coming here, she and her husband were working on a long-term project to drive from Maine to Brazil, documenting the different communities they passed through along the way. While traveling, Ashley applied for jobs.
She applied here because she likes the region. Her husband’s family is from North Carolina, and when she was young, she vacationed here. When the two of them started talking about where they wanted to settle down, they said, “Why don’t we live in a place that feels like a vacation?” She described her new positions as both a “dream job and dream location.”
As plant agriculture and horticulture agent, she will have two focus areas: the agricultural industry and the general community. She will work with the Christmas tree, strawberry, row crop and other agricultural industries to connect them with current research and technology. She will be the liaison between the new technology and research coming out of N.C. State and the needs of the local communities in Jackson and Swain counties.
In particular, she’s going to spend some time researching ways to support the Christmas tree industry, since she’s relatively new to it but also recognizes how important it is to the region.
She will provide support for master gardeners, home gardeners, beekeepers, youth and individuals with questions or concerns about their plants.
She worked in the diagnostic lab at the University of Maine, where people would send in diseased plants seeking her advice on ways to treat them, a skill that should prove useful as she assists local growers. She is also looking forward to working with 4-H to help teach younger generations about the importance of agriculture, and to being a resource for people who do not have experience with plants.
When asked if she had advice for quarantine gardeners who are new to the process, she emphasized the importance of testing soil content before planting. Though people usually consider sunlight and water access when choosing garden sites, they often forget to consider what’s in the soil. Soil tests are available through the County Extension Office.
Like the other Cooperative Extension Agents, Ashley will write monthly columns for The Sylva Herald. She can be reached by email at Katie_Ashley@ncsu.edu.
Morgan is an intern for The Sylva Herald.