No Room For Cuts: Extension programs vital to ag industry and education
By: Kathryn Schiliro
Last week, the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia proposed eliminating all of the state's 4-H programs and half of the state's county Extension offices in an effort to meet the Georgia legislature's request to trim $300 million from the FY2011 budget.
News of the proposal didn't sit well with the 156,000 current 4-H members, nor did it sit well with their parents or the hundreds of thousands—maybe even millions—of Georgians who have participated in the agriculturally rooted program. And agriculture's contribution to the state's economy came to near $12 billion in 2008, according to figures taken from the most recent Farm Gate Value Summary.
Aside from taking a valuable resource—county Extension offices—away from the state's farmers, the board of regents' proposal would essentially strip the state of a program that trains tomorrow's farmers and agriculture-based economic contributors.
For so many Georgians, this isn't an option.
Morgan County is responsible for $136,937,549 of the previously mentioned $12 billion.
A local farmer's best friend, Morgan County Extension Coordinator Bobby Smith has indirectly played a role in the county's agricultural success. His position, and 169 positions related to county Extension offices throughout the state, are in danger of being cut to save the state $5 million.
Russell and Christel Green moved to the county two years ago. Their goal? To raise and sell chemical-free eggs and meat—beef, pork, lamb and chicken.
The Greens initiated contact with Smith.
Smith worked with the couple on issues like managing grasses and getting rid of weeds without using herbicides; he helped to find vendors who produced chemical-free feed for the livestock. And when the Greens approached Smith about producing cheeses, Smith put them in contact with the appropriate parties at the state and local levels.
"[My] job is education," Smith said.
Just two weeks ago, Smith spoke on behalf of the Greens at a hearing before the Morgan County Planning Commission. The couple's plans to open a farm store on their property was later approved.
In addition to help on a case-by-case level, Smith fields between 20 and 25 calls a day from county residents, and at least half of the questions he answers have to do with pesticides.
"As many farmers call as homeowners," Smith said.
He holds nearly monthly meetings for various producer groups—dairy, cotton, cattlemen, poultry—in an effort to "bring producers the most current, non-biased information based on research from the university." There are 68 members of the dairy group; about 15, cotton; 85, cattlemen's; and 70, poultry (this group is made up of four counties).
Smith tailors this information through a needs assessment given to each group.
"The issues they're facing are specific to the county," Smith said. "That's why Extension programs can be different all over the state."
Most recently, Smith introduced farmers to Giant Miscanthus grass, which may soon be burned for biofuel production. Coincidentally, there is to be a biofuels plant in Warrenton, about 60 miles away.
"I have to get information to these producers so they can have the opportunity if they're so inclined," Smith said. "There are 18,000 acres of pasture in Morgan County. We grow a lot of grass."
Friday afternoon, Smith had returned from an afternoon at the Williams' Dairy, where he was visiting a UGA Dairy Cattle Evaluation lab class. Days before, a university representative contacted Smith about whether he knew of a dairy that would be open to hosting the class, as the university's cows just weren't doing it for the class anymore. Smith hooked them up with the Williams' Dairy.
"It's because of the proximity," Smith said. "Not all Extension agents do that."
Catering to even more students—and delving into the 4-H program—Smith oversees some local youth livestock programs.
The Morgan County Dairy Show Team, one of the largest in the state, is made up of 12 4-H'ers and 17 heifers. Smith coaches the Dairy Quiz Bowl Team—in 2006, the Morgan County team was fourth in the nation—and the Dairy Judging Team.
Ask Smith about the importance of agriculture.
"In Morgan County, it's a $136 million industry," Smith said. "No other industry generates that income... It's the number one employer and income generator in Morgan County."
Leading the future
4-H is the youth component to the University of Georgia's research-based outreach. In Morgan County, 14-year veteran Janet Woodard, county agent for 4-H Youth and Program Development, and four-year veteran Laura Rolader, county Extension program assistant for 4-H Youth and Program Development, deliver that outreach through interaction with students, club meetings, projects and competition.
Woodard and Rolader serve 260 fifth grade 4-H'ers, more than 300 fourth grade 4-H'ers, 30 Junior 4-H'ers—seventh and eighth grades—and 30 Senior 4-H'ers—ninth through 12th grades.
Student interest dictates what clubs are formed; if students are interested, they are more likely to participate and, therefore, more likely to build their leadership and citizenship skills. (Think of the 4-H club as a microcosm for how to get involved when it comes to adult life.)
"Several were interested in horses, so we have a saddle club," Woodard said.
Woodard and Rolader meet with fifth and sixth graders once a month. Coordinating with teachers about what subject matter the classes are working on, Woodard and Rolader present a lesson based in the Georgia Performance Standards.
"We are able to help teachers meet the standards provided by the state," Rolader said.
"It puts a fresh face on it; it's a different way of teaching it," Woodard said.
They also meet with and offer lessons to home-school students. That group is currently working on a gardening curriculum—how to grow plants, how seeds germinate.
"A few years ago we started the home-school group because we saw a need there," Rolader said.
Woodard and Rolader reach out to Junior and Senior 4-H'ers through Club Days and after-school meetings. Their biggest undertaking, when it comes to this age group, has to be District Project Achievement (DPA).
To participate in DPA, junior and senior 4-H'ers choose a topic they're interested in and present their findings to judges. DPA requires 4-H'ers not only keep a portfolio of what they've done for their project, but also requires participants deliver a speech before an audience.
"It makes it [public speaking] easier for students when they become adults," Woodard said.
Through DPA, 4-H'ers learn to do research; compile, organize—think portfolio—and share information; and practice leadership, as older 4-H'ers often lead project clubs based on their DPA interests for younger 4-H members.
4-H competition—aside from DPA—comes down to youth livestock programs.
Judging teams—Poultry and Dairy Judging teams in the county—require 4-H'ers to make evaluations of eggs, laying hens, cattle and dairy cows. With their decisions made, 4-H'ers have to defend their decision to judges; scoring is based on the reasons behind their decision and their defense of their decision. The Cotton Boll and Consumer Judging Team teaches 4-H'ers about making wise decisions as a consumer, the relationship between money and quality.
Morgan County 4-H also hosts Horse and Dairy Quiz Bowl teams; competes in the State Egg Prep Competition; and shows livestock—dairy heifers, market hogs, beef heifers, market goats, market lambs.
Woodard and Rolader oversee community service projects. Local 4-H'ers assisted in an Earth Day Campus Clean-up, wrote and distributed Christmas cards to shut-ins and took part in Plant-a-Row, which provides fresh produce to the local food bank.
In addition, there's always Saddle Club, led by a 4-H'ers where participants learn about horses; volunteer-led archery and shotgun programs—the archery team is one of the largest in the state; and Clovers and Company, the 4-H's performing arts group.
The 4-H leaders don't rest during the summer; in fact, that's prime-time for 4-H activities. 4-H members get the opportunity to go camping at one of five of the state's 4-H camps. Woodard and Rolader also oversee leadership opportunities, whether it's Certified Teen Leader classes—participants learn leadership qualities and team-building skills; Kids in the Kitchen—culinary camp teaching food and nutrition, cooking skills and food safety techniques; and Summer Olympics—games and swimming.
As far as money and the budget goes, funding for these many programs comes from grants, donations and fund-raising on the part of the children.
Given the outpouring of support, they remain hopeful despite the grim news that their positions might be eliminated, and they see even this as a chance for 4-H'ers to learn. The closing of 4-H programs across the state will get rid of 116 positions and save the state more than $6.3 million.
"It has been encouraging. It has been a very positive experience," Rolader said. "It has given kids the opportunity to voice their opinions, to contact their legislators. It has empowered them."
Harsh economic reality
Understand, the decision to put the state's Extension offices and 4-H program on the chopping block was not made by the state legislature. That call was made by the board of regents—formed in 1931, the board acts as the "single governing and management authority" for higher education in the state.
Senator Johnny Grant, who represents Morgan County (District 25) in the state Senate, explains.
"The legislature appropriates money to various agencies," Grant said. "The money that we appropriate to the board of regents, which is in charge of all the higher education funding, is basically a lump sum that goes to them. Then the chancellor, board of regents and presidents of individual universities determine how the money is going to be spent. 4-H is a program that falls in that area of the budget—the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences [at the University of Georgia]."
The legislature asked the board of regents—as they did all state agencies—to cut $300 million from the FY2011 budget. Two of the first things that the board of regents proposed could be cut—all Georgia 4-H programs (eliminating 116 filled positions, including 94 county 4-H agents), at a total of more than $6.3 million, and half of the state's county Extension offices (eliminating 169 filled positions), at a total of $5 million. Also proposed to be cut from the university's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES), the Archway Partnership, 15 filled positions for more than $1 million in savings; UGA Support for Griffin Partnership, 20 filled positions for more than $840,000; closing the Georgia Mountain Research & Education Center in Blairsville, eight positions for more than $350,000; closing the Bamboo Farm & Coastal Gardens in Savannah, five positions for near $126,000; closing C.M. Stripling Irrigation Research Park in Camilla, three positions for more than $226,000; closing the Vidalia Onion and Vegetable Research Center in Reidsville, two positions for more than $230,000; and closing the Attapulgus Research Farm, five positions for more than $239,000. Based on this, total proposed cuts to the CAES come to more than $14.4 million.
"The first thing they [the board of regents] did was offer up, as a cut, the 4-H program," Grant said. "I understand the board of regents is backing away from that recommendation at this point."
When it comes to keeping the Morgan County Cooperative Extension office going financially, the county commissioners are responsible for the majority of funding.
According to Smith, Morgan County provides $90,000 to the Extension office on a yearly basis; of that, $75,000 goes to pay salaries, while the other $15,000 is used to run the office—telephones, office equipment, travel, etc. The state kicks in about $70,000, not including benefits, and the federal government only supplies a portion of Smith's salary, and the federal contribution changes year to year.
"Individually, we're funded at different percentages, and a lot of that's depending on when we were hired," Smith said. "The state budget has been decreasing and [we've been relying] on a higher percentage [of funding] from the county."
According to Grant, the state legislature will not support elimination of the 4-H or Extension programs.
"It is not something the legislature could support," Grant said. "The one [proposed budget cut] about the 4-H seemed to gather the greatest amount of reaction from the public."
The board of regents may not, in the end, be required to eliminate the whole $300 million from the FY2011 budget. There is no denying, however, that cuts will have to be made—to all state departments.
The state had a $21 billion budget just three years ago, according to Grant. This year it's $15 billion.
"We've had to, over the past three years, deal with $6 billion less in revenue," Grant said. "While we were able to fill holes with one-time funds and federal stimulus dollars, we have considerably less to spend..."
All state departments have been hit with cuts, not solely the board of regents. The Department of Public Safety may eliminate some state trooper positions, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation may close some crime labs. The Department of Natural Resources has already had to close state parks and reduce their personnel. The Department of Education—that's grades K-12—has furloughed teachers. The Department of Economic Development has had its budget cut 76 percent over the past three years.
"All state employees have had their wages frozen," Grant said. "There's been no cost of living increase for the last three years. But professors...have received salary increases over the past three years. Some in the legislature think priorities in the board of regents are poorly aligned to economic realities."