Faculty 360 | Eric Walker

Faculty 360 is an all-around look at a UT AgResearch faculty member. In this issue we feature Eric Walker, assistant professor in the Department of Plant Sciences. Walker joined UTIA in August of 2014. His research focuses on tobacco and specialty crops, and he also has Extension responsibilities in these areas. Dr. Walker received his PhD from the University of Arkansas in 2005. He is a native of Robertson County, Tennessee, and enjoys spending time with family and friends and riding the roads.

I start my workday with my wife and boys, Monday through Friday, unless Iím on the road. That starts my day off right. Iím not too coherent early in the morning, so my boys, ages nine and twelve, and I still tune in ato PBS (weíve been doing it since they were born, so Iíll enjoy it as long as I can) for Wild Kratts while I drink my coffee and they drink their orange juice. By the end of the show, weíre ready to try to keep pace with my wife, whoís a morning person. When I get to work, I check emails and work through some of those, then move on to the order of the day.

When Iím not working, I like to do lots of things, for which there is just not enough time. Itís a common theme with me, but the first thing is enjoy time with my family and meshing this with other activities and hobbies that I enjoy, such as throwing the football, kicking the soccer ball, working on old cars and trucks, spending time with family and friends scattered around Tennessee, Kentucky, and other states, going to church, watching NASCAR and football, hunting and fishing, and listening to music, drinking cokes, and eating some type of snack while riding backroads. When I have time on my own, I ride a motorcycle.

As a plant scientist, Iím a fan of hope. I have research and extension responsibilities in tobacco and specialty crops, including industrial hemp. Being from a tobacco farm, the culture of tobacco production is deeply ingrained in me, and Iím very proud of this. I also realize that there are risks associated with this crop, and I believe that there always will be. However, I am thankful for all of the progress that researchers and extension personnel at UT and other universities, together with the tobacco industry, have made in working toward a less harmful product while increasing tobacco yields and quality and improving disease resistance, pest management, soil and water conservation, and labor safety and well-being. Based on these advancements and ongoing research, Iím not only hopeful, but confident, that significant progress will continue. Likewise, there is reason for hope in industrial hemp. When I first started working with industrial hemp, I was not only skeptical and reluctant, but nearly loath to working with industrial hemp due to its close association with marijuana. In spite of this, it was my responsibility to work with industrial hemp, so I opened my mind and studied industrial hemp and Cannabis to gain a greater understanding. Now two years in, I have learned that some nonpsychoactive derivatives of Cannabis (including industrial hemp) such as CBD are increasingly showing potential as useful tools to manage serious health issues in not all, but some, people, and to me, this is a good thing that gives me hope for reduced suffering and improved quality of life. Furthermore, there is potential for growth and utilization as a grain and fiber crop in this country, although there is still a lot of work to be done in this area as well. Currently, a collaborative, multistate effort, of which the University of Tennessee is a part, is underway to expedite this process.

A life experience that connected me with my career choice was, as mentioned before, growing up on a tobacco farm within the culture of tobacco production. Tobacco production is very labor-intensive, and tobacco produced in Tennessee is still hand harvested. In fact, each plant of tobacco produced in Tennessee is handled by someone no less than four times per season, and in many instances, more than this. Because of the high hand-labor requirement of the crop, I spent a significant and wonderful portion of my life in and around the tobacco patch, working alongside my grandfather, father, the Balthrop family, and other incredible people year-round from the time that I was just old enough to drink a Double Cola and eat a Little Debbie at break time throughout my undergraduate college years, taking increasing roles in the production of the crop as I got older. In fact, I met my wife in a tobacco patch. In addition to numerous lessons learned working in tobacco, I learned the value of hard work, humility, and appreciation. I also noticed that tobacco producers had a relatively small presence in the agricultural world compared to the producers of other crops, and because of this, they were not widely understood but at times they were widely overlooked. This crop, this culture, this way of life, and its people had given me so much, and I always wanted to help tobacco producers. As time went on and I was exposed to other types of agriculture during and after college, my desire to help expanded to producers of all crops and livestock, as well as everyone else involved in agriculture. Still, Iíll always be a tobacco producer at heart.

In the overall field of plant science I believe the most pressing issue is effective educationĖparticularly those not directly involved in agriculture. Although there is a continual need for research and scientific advancement, I believe that agriculture will have bright paths in these areas as long as consumers, policymakers, voters, everyone have an accurate understanding of not only the importance of agriculture, but also an understanding of where we were in agricultural production in the United States just seventy-five years agoĖa lifetime ago compared to where we are now and how we got here. Building upon this, we all, everyone, must understand where we need to go and what itís going to take to get there. This includes an appreciation for and understanding of production agriculture, including producers and the importance of policy, and acceptance and application of proven science to agricultural production to meet our future needs. The task of effectively educating the masses about agriculture is complex, ongoing, and immense.

Something that gets my brain going is stepping back for a moment. Reorientation. This allows me to determine if I am too focused and if Iím losing perspective. It enables me to take another look at the big picture, regain the proper perspective, and refocus. As an undergraduate at Austin Peay State University, I was an art major for a semester, and I learned this from Dr. Kell Black. It is applicable to everything that I do, although it is sometimes difficult to have the presence of mind to practice when Iím in the middle of working on something; however, it is essential if I am to achieve my best work.

Something that excites me about being part of the UTIA community is the people and building and maintaining relationships. UTIA is composed of amazing staff, students, faculty, and administration. Furthermore, we have an amazing clienteleĖthe people of Tennessee. I began graduate school at UT in 1996, worked for UT Extension in Obion county in 1999-2000, and I was based at the West Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center when I worked with the USDA-ARS from 2004-2009. From the beginning of my association with the UTIA community and the clientele that we serve, it is the people and the resulting relationships for which I am most thankful. These inspire and drive me to work hard as a member of this team in the fulfillment of our mission.