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University programs put spotlight on rural Alabama communities

Universities across Alabama are engaged in a number of activities that offer promising developments for the state’s rural communities and the key industries that power their economies.

For example, Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine is the site of a new program that will study diseases among livestock that pose a threat to public health, economic stability or national security.

The Animal Health and Agro-/Bio-Defense (AHAD) Program, a collaborative effort among U.S. government agencies and land-grant universities, will enhance the training of next-generation scientists who will help develop vaccines and other measures aimed at agrosecurity.

Auburn was awarded nearly $650,000 in federal funding for the project, and plans call for more than $2.5 million in the next five years.

The work is important because Alabama’s agriculture and forestry-related industries account for nearly 600,000 jobs in the state, with an economic impact of more than $70 billion, with much of that flowing into rural areas. There are more than 44,000 farms, covering almost 9 million acres.

In addition, AHAD will expand existing animal health research at Auburn to align with federal agencies charged with protecting the nation’s food supply, said Dr. Frank “Skip” Bartol, alumni professor and associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Veterinary Medicine.

“Auburn University is home to robust network of experts conducting important research, benefiting not only Alabama’s agricultural industry but also the entire nation’s,” said Greg Canfield, Secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce.

“The establishment of AHAD will allow Auburn’s researchers to make an even greater impact by helping to ensure the security of our food supply.”


Brenda Tuck, Rural Development Manager for the Alabama Department of Commerce, said the state’s universities are an important stakeholder in rural communities and vice versa.

“Alabama’s colleges and universities have been instrumental in improving the quality of life in the state’s rural areas on many fronts,” Tuck said.

“At the same time, rural Alabama provides valuable contributions to researchers at those institutions, particularly when it comes to agriculture, forestry and related industries that are prevalent in these regions.”

And some rural counties are home to universities and the innovative research.

Dr. Olga Bolden-Tiller, dean of the College of Agriculture, Environment and Nutrition Sciences at Tuskegee University in Macon County, was recently tapped to serve on the board of the Farm Journal Foundation.

The organization is focused on sustainable agricultural efforts, and Bolden-Tiller was selected for her expertise as a scientist, educator and mentor.

“Tuskegee University is known for producing well-trained, diverse agricultural leaders,” Bolden-Tiller said. “Together, we can work to ensure that greater inclusion results in more creative and innovative advancements to address key issues related to sustainable agriculture.”

At the University of West Alabama in Sumter County, biology professor Dr. Mustafa Morsy studies fungal symbionts, or mutualistic relationships, that can be used to increase plant growth, fruit yields and tolerance to certain agricultural stressors.

His work is driven by a mission to combat global famine and food insecurity.

Morsy, who has been teaching at UWA since 2011, has influenced the local agriculture industry as well.

His research led to the development of a fungal-based biological liquid fertilizer that was distributed free to farmers and landowners in and around Sumter County during the most recent growing season. The goal is to eventually develop the product for commercial sales.


Some universities in rural counties play a major role in economic development efforts in their area.

One example: UWA was a key contributor to Sumter County’s efforts that landed the $175 million Enviva wood pellet production plant in 2019. University officials teamed with community leaders, state officials and industry partners for over a year to bring the project to fruition.

UWA’s Division of Economic and Workforce Development offers services including site selection and preparation, assistance in connecting to public and private agencies at various levels and workforce development and training.

The division also serves as a resource and support system for existing businesses and industries that want to grow in the region.

There’s a similar approach at Troy University in Pike County.

Lynne Firmin George, who was named the university’s director of economic development last year, is tasked with building bridges between the university and communities and businesses in the region to promote economic growth. She is also director of the IDEA Bank, which supports student entrepreneurs and business ventures.

In her role, George fosters growth of student entrepreneurs by connecting them to community partners. She also acts as a liaison between university resources and the community.

“Together, we can implement innovative programming that will serve both our students and community members,” she said.

(Courtesy of Made in Alabama)

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