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Cuts to extension, 4-H would be devastating, officials say
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Hall County extension coordinator Billy Skaggs works the phones Tuesday afternoon at his East Crescent Drive office. A shortfall in state funding could lead to major cuts for the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension.

If a budget scenario that slashes nearly $59 million in state funding from the University of Georgia becomes reality, half of Georgia’s 158 county extension offices will go dark and 4-H programs across the state will completely disappear.

Those involved with UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, which run the ubiquitous programs, are hoping legislators won’t let that happen.

Scott Angle, dean of the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, said he has encouraged the folks in his department to talk “to anyone who will listen about the power of extension and 4-H, in particular” — off the clock, of course.

“It would be devastating to 4-H, to the youth in this state, and it would be devastating to our No. 1 economic driver, which is agriculture,” said Beverly Sparks, associate dean of UGA’s Cooperative Extension. “... Without a doubt, we have the strongest 4-H program in the nation, and other states look to us with great envy because of the success and the size and the depth of our 4-H program, and so for it to be proposed to totally shut this thing down is just heartbreaking.”

The proposal to cut the programs comes at a time when state residents seem to be relying on the help of extension agents the most.

Billy Skaggs, Hall County’s agricultural extension agent, said the past 12 months were “extremely busy” for him as area residents had increased interest in locally grown food. UGA family and consumer sciences agents also were flooded with questions of financial literacy and food preservation, Sparks said.

“We’re needed right now,” she said.

Already, the recession has taken its toll on the program. About 70 positions in the service were eliminated either through encouraged retirements or attrition. Locally, a position for a 4-H program assistant was eliminated, and Debbie Wilburn, the county’s family and consumer sciences agent, retired. Wilburn was rehired on a part-time basis for a year, but her contract ends in June. For the past year, she’s been one of the only family and consumer science agents in the region, working in multiple counties.

If 79 offices were closed as proposed, the extension agents left would have an even more daunting task before them. Skaggs already is answering questions in neighboring counties where some agents have retired and not been replaced — a system he says has worked OK so far.

“But the thought of closing extension offices, and the thought of county ag agents working multiple counties is going to greatly diminish our abilities to work with our farmers and agribusiness folks and even homeowners,” Skaggs said. “... Extension is a boots-on-the-ground system of program delivery.”

Working in more counties reduces the time agricultural agents can spend on farms learning and advising, which compromises their ability to provide the type of information for which they’ve always been known.

“When (farmers) come to extension, they know it’s unbiased, it’s research-based, it’s the truth as best we know it, and we’re not trying to sell them anything,” Skaggs said. “We’re not trying to convince them to do something other than what we know to be the best practice for their farm or their operation.”

Sparks takes hope in the fact that UGA President Michael Adams publicly has said that he doesn’t like the budget scenario submitted to lawmakers Monday.

Still, there is an audible tension in her voice.

“Of course, we’ve got to look at the implications of all this and start making plans,” she said.

And the implications are “devastating,” she said. Above making plans for that reality, Sparks said her first priority is to get state budget planners to change their minds.

“None of the things he could have done would have been easy or popular,” Angle said. “... When you’re cutting at this level, and you’ve already cut all the fat, there were no good decisions.”

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