Extension Applies Scientific Base to Outreach Programs
By Catherine Doss
Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 32 - June 4, 1998
(Editor's Note: This article about Virginia Cooperative Extension is the final in an eight-part series about outreach at Virginia Tech.)
Nearly one million participants state wide are served by Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE) annually. That's a million participants who have increased their farm productivity, learned how to make healthy food choices, developed skills in managing their money, or are now growing plants while protecting the environment. Whatever their contact with Extension has been, these individuals have somehow had their lives improved.
"Extension is an integral part of Virginia Tech's outreach mission," said Extension Director Clark Jones. "We pride ourselves in the fact that we are close to the communities we serve. Because we have an Extension office in every county and many cities in the state, we have the ability to deal with local needs and issues."
VCE, operated jointly through Virginia Tech and Virginia State University, has a presence that is far-reaching. With 106 local offices across the state, 12 agricultural research and Extension centers, six district offices, and six 4-H centers, it is no wonder Extension has such a tremendous impact on the lives of Virginians. In fact, Virginia Tech was a leader in creating the extension concept in the early 1900s-a concept that was later adopted in nearly every state in the nation.
Most of Extension's program delivery takes place through its local offices. Programs include those in agriculture and natural resources, family and consumer sciences, and 4-H youth programs. In agriculture and natural resource programming, Extension agents and specialists work with agricultural and forestry industries to increase the efficiency and profitability of production; farmers are taught stewardship and conservation practices to enhance the quality of their land and water resources; and food-service industry clientele are taught the causes of food-borne illness and how to eliminate improper food-handling practices. Pest and disease identification and management, where Extension laboratories are used to identify insect and weed pests and diseases of plants and trees, also comprise a large part of educational programming. Agricultural marketing and farm business-management programs help farmers increase the overall value of their products and integrate computerized management and record-keeping into their business practices
Extension's programs in family and consumer sciences bring practical advice to a variety of audiences. One example was the Families: Virginia's First Industry conference held in Richmond recently that brought to the forefront the importance of family stability and the state's economic viability. Workshops focused on family violence, food safety, and family finances. The conference also included a discussion on public-policy issues related to families.
"Our family-related programming has changed over the years to meet the changing needs of the community," Jones said. "Today people want to learn more about topics such as nutrition, health, and family financial management."
The Smart Choices Nutrition Education Program helps food-stamp recipients make choices in their food purchases that will result in enhanced nutritional value of their diets and extended purchasing power of their limited resources. This program is supported by a $1.7-million grant from the Department of Food and Consumer Services and is the largest grant VCE currently manages.
Virginia Cooperative Extension is widely known for its 4-H programs. In fact, one out of every six persons in the United States is a 4-H alumnus. Last year more than 116,000 4-H members learned citizenship responsibilities and leadership skills, participated in 4-H youth camps, and engaged in projects relating to livestock, food, computing, health, mechanical sciences, natural resources, and wildlife. The backbone of the 4-H program is nearly 10,000 adult volunteers throughout the state.
"Volunteers are vital to our success," Jones said. "State-wide, our Extension programs have more than 30,000 volunteers including several thousand master gardeners. We couldn't operate without them."
Another unique feature of Extension is the strength of its research underpinning. A large part of its programming is based on scientific research conducted by faculty members on campus and those stationed at 12 research centers. These centers are overseen by the Agricultural Research Experiment Station which, like Extension, shares resources and expertise among four colleges: Agriculture and Life Sciences, Human Resources and Education, Forestry and Wildlife Resources, and Veterinary Medicine-and Virginia State University.
"Almost everything we do applies a scientific base," Jones said. "This strong research component, coupled with the quality of our faculty and staff members, gives us the ability to deliver outstanding, cutting-edge programs."
And this cutting-edge mindset is apparent throughout VCE, as it is investing heavily in technology. The organization is in the process of connecting its field offices to Net.Work.Virginia, allowing two-way voice, video, and data transmission at each site. State-of-the-art computers have been installed in each field office, and agents are taking this technological know-how to farmers and others in the field.
One of VCE's most recent projects is to enhance the presence of Virginia Tech and Virginia State at each of its sites. Through the use of welcome mats, literature, and appropriate signage, everyone who walks through a VCE office door will be reminded of the two universities that make Extension happen.
"VCE is so widespread that sometimes people are unaware that the entire agency is operated by these two fine universities," Jones said. "We want to proudly make it known the role we play in helping people throughout the state make their lives better through education."