This summer was one of Billy Skaggs’ busiest.
As cash-strapped consumers started growing their own food, the agricultural extension agent in Hall County has answered more questions from first-time vegetable gardeners than he has in recent memory.
Similarly, family and consumer science agents across the state have been fielding more financial literacy questions and started bankruptcy counseling programs to adjust to recession-era needs.
But as the demand has risen for extension agents’ expertise, their funding is drying up.
Statewide, extension offices have had to deal with a 17 percent reduction in state funds in the last year. Tony Tyson, the University of Georgia’s director of extension county operations, says more cuts are imminent.
State budget cuts have left a gaping hole in extension agent staffing across the state. Of the state-funded positions, 20 percent remain vacant, Tyson said.
Travel budgets that help agents attend training sessions to boost their expertise have been cut from 30 to 50 percent statewide, Tyson said.
“It’s unfortunate that the budget situation has caused us to reduce some staff and change the way we operate at a time like this, when the need for our services is greater than ever,” Skaggs said.
Though Tyson says the cooperative extension program has not yet had to lay off any employees, many agents that were once full-time have been offered an early retirement and now work in the same position part-time.
So far, 47 agents across the state have taken such an offer, said Ken Lewis, interim extension director for the state’s Southwest district.
Nineteen positions in the 39-county Northeast district, which includes Hall, have been left vacant. About half of those positions, like Hall County’s full-time family and consumer sciences agent, have been filled on a part-time basis, according to John Parks, the extension director for the state’s Northeast district.
But the cuts have taken a toll on extension offices across the district. Some counties, such as Habersham and Rabun, are completely without a family and consumer science agent. Most have agricultural agents that only work 19 hours a week.
“Even though there’s some part-time help in there, it still slows down services and puts a little extra burden on everybody else,” Parks said.
“The calls don’t quit coming in,” Parks said. “In fact, people probably have more questions now than they’ve ever had.”
Though Skaggs and Hall County’s 4-H agent remain full-time, other positions are vacant. The office relies on the trainees in the Master Gardeners’ program, whose certification process requires them to volunteer at the extension office to help carry some of the load.
“We’re taking it day by day,” Skaggs said. “... We’re all hoping that the worst of it is over and we’re just trying to continue on and provide the best service that we can.”
So far, Parks said extension agents in the Northeast district have not cut programming. Agents have worked across county lines to keep programs going across the state, he said.
“They just get it done. Sometimes it gets done at a slower pace,” Parks said. “What’s normally done today might not get done until tomorrow afternoon or Friday morning. Response time is just slower.”
In the Southwest district, Lewis attributes that willingness to work across county lines to the “missionary zeal” extension agents have to help and educate people.
“It’s even more important now that we are available and meet the needs of the community, because local government and state government, everyone’s looking for ways to trim costs, and we want it to be obvious that our services are still very important and we are as viable and as important today as extension was 20 or 30 years ago,” Skaggs said.