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UGA's Extension Offices in peril

ALBANY -- Dennis Wright has never worked anywhere else but on a farm.

He started working with his father on his family farm when he was young and has since run his own farm since 1996.

Wright's a peanut, soybean, corn and pecan farmer. He had relied on the University of Georgia's Cooperative Extension Office in Dougherty County for years. He was disappointed when he heard that the proposed $300 million additional cuts made by the University System of Georgia for Fiscal Year 2011 would shutter half of UGA's County Extension Offices and abolish 169 positions for a $5 million savings.

There are 157 state Extension Offices and the proposed cuts would also shut the doors of research facilities like the C.M. Stripling Irrigation Research Park in Camilla.

Wright, 39, frequently works with Dougherty County Extension Agent Rad Yager. Over the years, Yager has helped him determine peanut maturity, which is critical to good yields. Yager also also helped Wright measure pecan irrigation effectiveness and monitor his soybeans for Soybean Asian Rust and other diseases. Yager also works specifically with pecan, corn, cotton and sweet corn at the Stripling Research Park.

"They're one of the few agencies we have that help on the local levels," Wright said of the Dougherty County Extension Office. "They are our connection to the information that the universities supply. It's pretty hard for just a farmer to find out anything new coming down the line. (Yager's) in contact with all these people and he can find solutions to more problems.

"They have access to information that can keep the farmers abreast of new things coming along and there's no way we'd know it unless we were there," he continued. "I mean, that's their one job and we've got a 1,000 here. They just give us information. It's just nice to call (Yager) and ask him a question and he'll answer it, and if doesn't know (the answer), he knows how to find out quick. It might take me 10 phone calls to find out one thing and it takes him just one.

"They're just another tool to use to help you save your money. And, that's all the game is about -- saving money."

Beef and poultry farmer Buddy Lewis has used the UGA Extension Office in Dougherty County for decades as well.

"We've worked with them for 40 years," Lewis said. "We use them for information. The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Office (has) this handbook and it's about 2 1/2 inches thick. It has all the herbicides, insecticides, fungicides; that's the stuff I use. The forestry people use it, the golf course people use it, there's stuff for poultry people. It's all stuff that tells you whether something works or doesn't. That's just one example of the things they do. They're very critical to what we do."

If Dougherty County didn't have an Extension Office, the 54-year-old Lewis believed life would be a lot different for him and other farmers.

"We'd have to depend on chemical companies and they're going to sell their product," he said. "This way, we can look at all the products. It really helps."

Besides helping farmers improve their pecan production -- which Dougherty County ranks as the top producer in the state -- Extension Offices also provide family and consumer science help. Dougherty County Extension Agent Suzanne Williams said she offers state mandated training hours to restaurant/food service operations using the state approved ServSafe program. Under the new state food code, all restaurants are required to have a certified food service manager present during operating hours. Williams is a state certified provider for the ServSafe, which is a two-day program and concludes with a licensure exam.

Williams also provides state recognized training for daycare workers to enable them to keep their state certification active. She's also a HUD certified housing counselor who works with people planning to purchase a house or possibly about to lose their home in an attempt to prevent foreclosures. She is also state certified to provide the financial management hours of instruction required for a judge to sign off on bankruptcies.

Yearly, Williams provides in-service training for Albany State University, Darton College, Head Start, Lee and Dougherty county schools. She also hosts a monthly diabetes support group and provides twice yearly diabetes cooking schools. She also offers financial management classes and teaches other topics such as cancer prevention, green cleaning, food preservation, nutrition and cooking skills to individuals and groups throughout the county.

"We are the public arm of UGA," Williams said. "A local source of knowledge for citizens who don't know who to call in Athens about a question or problem they are having. We can sit down with them or go to their home or farm to give them the help they need."

Interim Dougherty County Extension Coordinator James Morgan said he works with residents on various subjects and horticulture issues. Besides his popular master gardener series, he teaches pesticide safety and landscape management programs for commercial professional landscapers. He also provides pesticide license testing and recertification for applicators, pond management and landscape management training for Albany City Public Works employees.

"I also conduct home site visits, office visits and take phone (calls) from citizens in Dougherty County relating to insects, diseases, and weed control in lawns, landscapes, vegetable gardens and fruit trees," said Morgan, who has been a Georgia Extension Agent for 10 years. "I have seminars throughout the year related to these topics."

Ken Lewis, Southwest District director of Cooperative Extension in Tifton, in an e-mail noted that the University of Georgia is proposed to take a $58 million to $60 million cut out of the proposed additional $300 million University System of Georgia cut.

"Of this cut, Extension is targeted to take $11.6 million, or 33.3 percent of our budget," Lewis wrote. "CAES (College of Agriculture and Environmental Science) research is targeted to take $800,000 or 1.96 percent cut. Cooperative Extension is 7.6 percent of the total UGA budget, but we are targeted to take 20 percent of the total UGA cut.

"The message is that Extension is taking the brunt of the cut for the whole university," he continued. "If this cut stands, Extension will take cuts totaling 51 percent between FY '09 and FY '11."