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An Extension of education
Today's Cooperative Extension serves homeowners, urban schools and anyone wanting a green thumb
Hall County Extension Agent Billy Skaggs, left, talks with Drew Echols of Jaemor Farms about the new strawberry crop growing at the farm. The Extension office has helped Echols with soil testing and advice with the strawberries, a new crop at the farm. - photo by Tom Reed

If you have eaten at a local cafeteria, bought local produce, eaten poultry or even dropped your child off at a day care or public school, the Cooperative Extension and 4-H have been a part of your life.

In fact, Cooperative Extension and 4-H have been a part of life in Georgia for more than 100 years. But if the $300 million proposed budget cuts announced last week by the University of Georgia go into effect, half of the county Extension offices will be closed and 4-H will be eliminated.

The 2011 recommended budget proposed by Gov. Sonny Perdue also includes another $265 million in cuts.

“Cuts to extension programs have been fairly common in the last several years,” said Billy Skaggs, Hall County’s Extension agent. “Michigan was the most recent proposed cut. I don’t think their cut was as bad as once thought; the proposal in Michigan was to eliminate Extension and 4-H. That proposal was nixed. It did not happen, but there were significant cuts.”

Skaggs added that the amount of cuts to Cooperative Extension seemed extreme. Since fiscal year 2008, Extension has been cut 20 percent. If the proposed cut goes through, the cuts would jump to 51 percent.

“If the current Board of Regents proposal were to go through, then those remaining offices would be regional offices,” he said. “The challenge there is that we cannot provide the same level of service that we currently provide. It would drastically change how we operate.

“If we went to the regional concept (the office) would be a phone bank. People could call here and get information and maybe get something e-mailed to them, but as far as one-on-one program delivery, those things aren’t going to happen.”

The cuts would include closing Rock Eagle 4-H Center, cutting enrollment at universities and the possibility of laying off tenured professors.

And while a program would be left, in some form, for Cooperative Extension, 4-H might not be so lucky.

A Georgia-born program
In 1904 G.C. Adams, a school superintendent in Newton County, created 4-H to teach a group of boys how to produce a better crop of corn.

“That was the one of the first 4-H programs in the state. Then in 1906 Hancock County started and then it built from there,” Skaggs said. “When the Smith Lever Act was passed, that was 1914. That was when extension was founded or came official and 4-H fell under that umbrella.”

The 4-H program was meant to supplement kids’ education.

“4-H initially was founded or created to meet the needs of young people in rural areas who did not have as much access to education, training and development in a number of different things.”

Child development was the focus of 4-H, and kids were taught about growing corn or tomatoes and would participate in contests.

“It also moved to the home economics side of things with sewing clubs and all those practices, skills that rural people really needed to have because they were self-sufficient in a lot of ways,” Skaggs said.

Today, 4-H is a youth development organization and not only focuses on agriculture but on technology, public speaking and communications, among other interests.

“We have strong agriculture roots and strong roots with family consumer sciences,” said Arch Smith, interim state 4-H leader and director of 4-H. “But over the years, throughout the agricultural and family consumer science education initiative, we have tried to work with children and help them learn from that scientific knowledge that has been gathered by researchers at the University; the thing that we have been the most interested in is developing the young person.

“We help children develop life skills and self esteem, public speaking, decision-making skills and learn things about healthy lifestyles.”

Judy Tilford, Hall County’s 4-H Extension agent, said the effects on the local schools would be one of the biggest casualties if the 4-H program were completely cut.

“Then there’s the school programming, which is very much a science enrichment program, agricultural awareness and leadership program. And we’re helping teachers meet their Georgia performance standards with our science enrichment program,” she said.
Tilford oversees a 4-H program in 19 elementary schools. That means about 1,680 children learn through 4-H programs.

“When we’re in schools I think the role we fulfill is through our science enrichment and ag awareness,” she said. The program is “presenting a program to a child that maybe they’ll understand if it is presented a little bit differently and it might help them do a little bit better on a test coming up or it might spark an interest in something.”

That’s something Randy Sheppard has experienced with his four children, all of whom grew up attending 4-H programs.

“Two of my daughters went to Brenau and they got 4-H scholarships going to Brenau, and I’ve got one daughter right now, she is a Northeast District board member,” said Sheppard, who also is a member of the 4-H Trust Fund Committee and serves as recording secretary of the Extension Leadership System. “By doing this with 4-H it gave them that experience to stand up in front of a group, carry on a conversation.

“There’s a lot of leadership activity, there’s a lot of personal development skills and communication skills that 4-H teaches the kids in the county.”

When 4-H and Extension were created, it was the mission of a land-grant institution like the University of Georgia to take the information to the residents of the state. UGA is one of dozens of land-grant universities around the country.

“That’s part of what the land grant is to do, is to teach to students on campus, to do research, advance the knowledge of the sciences and agriculture and then the extension is to carry that to the people of the state,” Smith said.

Extension as public service
Taking new research from UGA to the rural parts of the state was the job of the county Extension agent when Cooperative Extension was created.

“Their mission was certainly teaching and research, but also an extension of public service,” Skaggs said. “So the mission of the land-grant system, the land-grant university, is to take the information that is researched and generated on campus and be able to take it out to the public so that farmers, homemakers, youth, everyone, would be able to have access to that great information that is produced on campus.”

The Extension Service was created in 1914 and initially was called the “College of Wheels” until 1917, according to the Extension Web site.

Beverly Sparks, the associate dean with UGA Cooperative Extension, said not only was agriculture important at the beginning but also consumer sciences.

“On the family side of it they were teaching them how to safely process those foods and preserve those foods and very early on they found that was one way to get people to adopt better production practices,” she said. “Our family and consumer science agents now are responsible for providing programming in food safety, so you’ll be eating in a restaurant or cafeteria and the people that are working in those have been trained to safely prepare foods.”

Cooperative Extension agents are found in almost every county in Georgia and are funded through the federal, state and county governments.

“Essentially anyone that eats and wears clothes is some way or another benefitting from Cooperative Extension, because we work directly with farmers and producers providing technical information and consultation on how to make their farms more productive or efficient and help them stay in business,” Skaggs said.

Today the number of farmers in Hall County has dwindled, but their economic effect is still huge.

“The economic impact alone in Hall County is about $800 million a year. Now a lot of that is poultry,” Skaggs said. “There’s also still a lot of beef cattle, several dairies in the area, fruits and vegetables, and we have an active role in our farmers market here.”

Skaggs helps the farmer along with the homeowner on a daily basis to produce the best crops they can.

Take Drew Echols, for example, whose family owns Jaemor Farms in Alto and is growing his first crop of strawberries.

“When I was doing all the prep work, we did soil samples before we even planted and got the ground ready according to the recommendations,” Echols said. “Billy and I looked into it and developed a strategy. Somewhere along the line in my industry, the fruit and vegetable industry, he’s making my life easier, making things easier for me to grow. Therefore it is cheaper to the consumer.”

Cooperative Extension also provides services to homeowners.

“They can call us with questions about their lawn and their garden and their landscape, anything related to things that are growing or that they are trying to grow,” Skaggs said. “We offer soil and water testing for the homeowner if they have an issue with their well ... In the last several years we’ve had a tremendous increase in the interest of folks wanting to grow their own food.”

One of the most popular programs in Hall County is the Master Gardener program, which is run through the Extension office.

“The last three years we have led the state in the number of volunteer hours for a program that is not very old,” Skaggs said. “Last year our volunteers returned over 17,000 hours of volunteer service, which is the equivalent of eight full-time people and the economic value of about $300,000.”

An uncertain future
With UGA’s budget proposal on the table and now under debate, Extension employees throughout the state, along with professors at UGA and 4-H participants, are rallying to halt the cuts. UGA students even protested on Wednesday at the Capitol.

Gov. Sonny Perdue said Thursday that his administration would “not dismantle a world-class university system we spent over two decades to build up.”

Perdue pledged to protect the state’s public colleges from deep cuts being pushed by state lawmakers that would force tuition hikes and would eliminate popular programs, like 4-H.

Speaking at a state Capitol news conference, the Republican governor blasted legislators for engaging in “scare tactics and fear mongering.”

But until the budget issues are resolved, Hall County’s Extension agents will continue manning the phones and visiting farmers, keeping the education going in the field and in the classrooms.

The Associated Press contributed to this report