When I was 9 years old, I became a 4-H member and so began my lifelong relationship with the Cooperative Extension Service.
My mom was the general leader of our club during the nine years I was a member. I attended dozens and dozens of club, county and district 4-H meetings over the years, showed my projects at the county and state fairs every year like most 4-H members do and participated in several 4-H public speaking and demonstration contests. I judged at county, state and national 4-H poultry judging contests, and like my uncle did before me in 1941, I was selected to attend National 4-H Club Congress in 1974 – 34 years ago this week. After moving from Illinois to Wisconsin to go to college at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, I even worked for Extension one summer as an intern in Walworth County.
Throughout my journalism career, I have relied heavily on Extension to educate me and keep me informed about cutting-edge farm management practices. In the Wisconsin Agriculturist, the monthly Dairy Team, Field Fodder and Focus on Forages columns are all written by Extension staff. The Agrivision column features comments from Pepin County Extension agent Bob Cropp. And dozens of county Extension agents serve as sources for countless stories each year that I write and edit for this magazine to keep readers informed about the latest farm management practices.
Over the years, my husband and I have benefited from advice and information from Extension on our dairy farm. Both of us serve as 4-H club project leaders and all four of our sons have been raised in 4-H – the three youngest are still actively involved. I'm especially proud that my 17 year old is carrying on the family tradition of attending National 4-H Club Congress this week in Atlanta.
The point is, Extension has been a huge part of my life and my family's lives and I can't imagine life without Extension. I don't think there is a month or even a week that goes by that Extension doesn't impact my life at home or at work. Extension has been the glue that keeps farmers and rural communities in this state thriving. 4-H has helped countless young people grow into confident adults armed with a wide variety of life skills that help them venture out into the world and lead successful lives long after they graduate from 4-H. I've always thought it makes more sense to invest in a program that teaches young people to make good choices and learn valuable skills than to spend money building bigger jails?
Unfortunately, like most of you, I'm guilty of taking Extension for granted.
It never dawned on me until I received an e-mail in late October from Ken Bolton that said his job as longtime Jefferson County Extension dairy and livestock agent, and the jobs of two of the three Jefferson County Extension secretaries and the half-time assistant 4-H agent were in danger of being axed from the 2009 county budget. The thought of cutting 40% of the Jefferson County Extension program sounded ridiculous, especially now when farmers are facing the most challenging economic time since the farm crisis in the early 1980s or maybe even The Great Depression. How could they think of eliminating a large part of their Extension program I wondered? Don't farmers pay a significant portion of property taxes for county programs and services?
A call to Rick Klemme, dean of UW Cooperative Extension, quickly confirmed that not only could it happen in Jefferson County next year, but other counties throughout the state may be looking at cutting Extension programs in 2010.
Who is at risk?
If you think your county is safe from budget cuts to Extension, think again. According to Klemme, many county boards throughout the state that were once filled with farmers and retired farmers who had first-hand knowledge about the value of Extension, are now instead filled with city dwellers who only have vague recollections of visiting their uncle's farm 50 years ago or more when they were kids and have little or no experience with Extension. Faced with declining revenues and escalating expenses, some county boards may choose to cut Extension programs to make up their budget shortfalls.
To keep that from happening, you need to get involved and become an activist. Don't sit on the sidelines and wait for the axe to fall. Think about all the ways Extension has impacted your life. Call your county board representative and make sure they know the value of Extension. Don't assume they understand what 4-H is all about. Tell them what it has meant to your family. Write letters explaining the value of Extension and ask that the letter be read aloud at a county board meeting. Attend budget hearings and make sure your county executive or administrator knows about Extension. And when county board elections next take place in April 2010, run for a seat on the county board or encourage a friend or neighbor to run. It's time to stand up for Extension before it's too late.