It’s been a century since Congress came up with a novel idea to send educators out in the field to connect everyday people with the research and knowledge generated at state land-grant universities.
The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 — introduced by Sen. M. Hoke Smith, D-Georgia, and Rep. A.F. Lever, D-South Carolina — gave birth to a national Cooperative Extension System that has adapted with the changing times but stayed true to its problem-solving, hands-on teaching goal.
In the beginning, services were designed for rural America, and delivered by horseback and train to farmers laboring without telephones, running water or electricity. Interestingly enough, teaching farmers about how to use solar power was one of the original goals spelled out in the act.
In today’s digital age, extension agents and the diverse clientele they serve are connected by the Internet. Instead of calling on the phone, a gardener with a pest problem is just as likely to take a photo with his or her cellphone, attach it to an email and send it to the extension office for guidance, said Cori Carlson, manager of Washington State University Thurston County Extension’s Master Gardener and Master Recycler Composter Program.
The Master Gardener program is a good example of the role volunteers play in a modern-day extension program. Trained and certified as community educators, master gardeners provide professional, research-based home gardening and horticulture information to the public through plant clinics, three demonstration gardens and other outreach efforts. Some 175 master gardeners and 38 master recycler composters logged more than 13,900 hours of community service last year.
“We’re getting more and more questions about organic vegetable gardening and less about landscaping,” Carlson said.
The major fundraiser for the program is set for 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday when the Master Gardener Foundation of Thurston County hosts its annual plant sale at the Dirt Works Demonstration Garden at Yauger Park on Olympia’s west side.
Volunteers and foundations — these are a couple of the ways that county extensions provide and pay for services in the face of budget cuts at the federal and county level, Thurston County Extension Director Lucas Patzek said.
For example, Thurston County Extension volunteers contributed nearly 20,400 hours of service last year, which equals 10 full-time employees. That’s pretty significant, considering the extension office has just a dozen employees. The volunteer labor is valued at almost $545,000, which more than matches the university’s contribution to the county extension budget last year — approximately $533,000.
Rochester tree farmer Don Tapio spent 36 years as an extension agent, and recalled the work environment in King County when he started his career. There were more agents, but no army of volunteers to help with calls from the public.
“I used to answer 105 telephone calls a day,” he said. He also remembered annual performance reviews based on how many pamphlets extension agents distributed to the public from the back of station wagons that were standard issue at the time.
Thirty years ago, extension agents were trained as generalists, compared with today’s specialists, Tapio said. “They wanted someone who knew a little bit about a whole lot of things,” he said.
“Now we do a lot of networking within the extension community,” Patzek said.
Patzek also doubles as an agriculture extension WSU faculty member and recently completed a county needs assessment for the agriculture community in Thurston County. Top priorities include growing markets for local producers, adding food processing plants and cold storage warehouses, and managing livestock grazing.
Patzek oversees four other programs: 4-H Youth Development, Food Safety and Nutrition, Master Gardener and Master Recycler Composter, and Water Resources and Native Plant Salvage.
Later this month, Thurston County Extension will celebrate the 20-year anniversary of its Native Plant Salvage Program, which involves volunteers who rescue native plants from sites slated for development, then replants them in association with habitat restoration projects, It’s a program unique to Thurston County, said senior extension coordinator and educator Erica Guttman. Last year, about 3,000 native plants were provided at no cost to schools, local governments, land trusts and others.
In addition, more than 2,000 people participated in water resources workshops and other training programs to learn how to build rain gardens to treat stormwater and create landscapes that protect water quality while providing habitat for the birds and the bees.
The 4-H program also has evolved over time in a county with fewer farm families and more children growing up in cities and suburbs.
“4-H used to be all about growing large livestock,” Patzek said. “Now you see more life skill classes like how to prepare a four-course meal.”
Peering into the future, Patzek sees the role of county extension focusing more on environmental issues, urban homeowners and a resilient local food network.
“Extension work is a calling,” Tapio said. “We have a desire to help people. That’s what we do — we serve.”
If you go
What: 23rd Annual Master Gardeners Plant Sale. All proceeds will go to support the WSU Thurston County Extension program.
When: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Dirt Works Demonstration Garden at Yauger Park, 3100 Capital Mall Drive SW, Olympia.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444 firstname.lastname@example.org