A Public Service Announcement (of sorts)

File this under “short-sighted acts of government”. What, that cabinet is full to overflowing? 

In the wild world of U.S. Land Grant Universities, faculty appointments can consist of varying ratios of “the three missions”:  Teaching, Research, and Outreach.  The Cooperative Extension Service is the formalized version of outreach.  Three of us Garden Professors (Linda, Jeff, and Bert) have Extension appointments. I personally do so much outreach with both gardeners and industry that everyone thinks I’m in Extension, so I’ll consider it an honorary appointment.  

Extension does so many fabulous things for so many people, space does not allow me to even get started.  It’s not “plows and cows” anymore – urban areas receive amazing benefits in terms of environmental education, programs for K-12 (e.g. 4-H), family and consumer services, and big push over the last decade in urban horticulture.

Among all the programs Extension administers (and there are loads), the program I’m most partial to is Master Gardeners (MGs for short). I instruct training sessions, and give gardening talks across the state.  Once trained, MGs provide gazillion volunteer hours at no charge to the state, in areas as diverse as consumer horticulture to school gardening. Our campus garden utilizes volunteer hours from MGs on nearly a weekly basis

Hang in there, I’m getting to the point.

Cooperative Extension has been prone to budget cuts for quite a while now – for most states, the fat was long ago cut away, and further cuts are going straight to the bone. Imagine the alarm when out of the blue yesterday came an email update on the state’s legislative issues and actions, most of which are actions on our huge budget shortfall:

Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) & Agriculture Research Stations
Introduced Budget: Reduction of $1.1 million in FY1; reduction of $4.5 million in FY2
House Budget: Mandates a restructuring of VCE: Closes offices in Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax, Norfolk, Petersburg, Portsmouth, Prince William, City of Richmond; Consolidates [an additional] 13 offices [moving to a nearby county]; Eliminates Family & Consumer Services, Community Vitality, and lawn/garden programs statewide leaving an emphasis on agriculture programs outside the urban corridor. Savings of $2.5 million in FY2.  Senate Budget: No change from introduced budget.

This proposed budget would effectively close down Extension in (by far) the most heavily populated areas of Virginia – Northern Virginia, the Richmond area, and the Virginia Beach area.  

From Dave Close, our Virginia MG Director, comes these figures:

“Statewide in 2009, our more than 5,000 VCE MG volunteers reported in excess of 334,000 volunteer hours (at a value of $6.76 million) and more than 577,000 contacts. We have right at 60 individual MG units that provide coverage of 85% or so of our counties and cities statewide.”

Dave goes on to note more good things that MGs are involved in:

1)      Environmental quality (air, water, and soil; rural-urban interface concerns such as wildland fire and how it can impact personal property and what to do to mitigate against the potential threat of wildland fire, etc.)

2)      Working with youth (school and community gardening programs for instance)

3)      Value of the landscape (economic returns from sustainably maintained landscapes – tax revenue from personal property, ecotourism, local economic development, personal savings realized from strategically planted trees in your landscape to reduce energy bills, etc.)

4)      Food safety and security (growing your own food, local food initiatives, farmer’s markets, knowing how to safely store and preserve the food you grow, biosecurity and dealing with invasive plants and pathogens, etc.)

5)      Quality of life improvement (working with populations with limited skills or abilities, working in detention centers for youth or adults giving them usable trade skills in the green industry, public health and safety issues such as mitigating against public health concerns such as west nile virus, etc.)

Now take a look at that House budget again – eliminating VCE in the most populated counties results in a one-time savings of $2.5 million.  2009 Statewide value of MG hours:
$6.76 million.

 I know many, many other sectors of public service and higher education are also in critical condition.  But cash strapped state or not, I’d call this cutting your nose off to spite your face.   

11 thoughts on “A Public Service Announcement (of sorts)”

  1. Holly, I feel your pain! Similar gutting is happening in Washington State. In some counties, Master Gardener foundations are providing operating money when the state and/or county decides not to fund the program any longer.

    Usually enough anger is generated by citizens who are involved with or benefit from Master Gardeners that legislators back off. But it’s not working this time.

  2. Great, as I am involved in current MG training in WI. I have no problem helping out, heck that’s why I wanted to do it, but to cut out the extension all together is plain CRAZY!!!! I am thinking you need some citizens out there Screaming about this.

  3. I’m in MG training right now and our county is one of those Linda describes. Our Foundation does a heck of a job and I’m very grateful for them. “Cutting their nose off…” fits what’s happening to a tee.

  4. I am an MG in Illinois and we are facing the same problem. I hope our collective voice is heard on this one and enough money is left for the program to continue. Perhaps there is some way for us to be vocal both nationally and locally.

  5. It never ceases to amaze me that state governments (local too) seem to cut out the most useful programs during times to budgetary strife, but fail to look at their administrations and office procedures. Because as you know, cutting MG, police, fire, libraries, food stamps etc is exactly what people need in tough times as we are all aware that administrators and politicians need increases in their salaries!

  6. The House vote is today (Thursday 25th). Our state MG coordinator Dave Close (quoted above) has been ultra pro-active in rallying our MGs. Will report results!

  7. Part of the problem these legislators have is that they are not the folks using the Extension Services even though they benefit from them in their areas. These folks pay someone to do their “grunt work” and don’t care how they can fend for themselves like 90% of the population does. The Extension services are not useful or familiar to them so they see no value in them. If something has no value to you, you are less likely to be compassionate enoght to think of the less fortunate who do not have funds to hire someone to do the things taught and nurtured by the Extension services.

    House Bill 30, as described in my post, did pass as amended by the House Appropriations Committee. Damn. Next step is Senate discussion – perhaps an opportunity to talk some sense into these people. Thank you all for your comments and empathy – I know it’s not just Virginia Extension going through this craziness.

  9. I got this reply from my VA senator when I emailed him. I think I’ll phone.
    “Dear Ms. Burke,

    Thank you for sharing your position regarding county extension office consolidation, constituent input is crucial. I am currently gathering information to help me make a sound decision, one that is in the best interest of the constituents of the 59th district and for the Commonwealth of Virginia.

    Again, thank you for your comments. Please don’t hesitate to contact me at any time. I will be in Richmond until March 13th and my phone number is 804-698-1059.

    Watkins M. Abbitt, Jr.”

Leave a Reply