Extension has provided information, support for a century

By Katie Demeria

The Virginia Cooperative Extension has been serving communities since 1914. For its 100th anniversary, Carol Nansel, 4-H agent in Shenandoah County, went through annual eExtension reports filed between 1923 and 1969. What she found revealed just how vital the extension has been over the past century.

In 1943, community projects included collecting scraps and purchasing bonds for the war effort. In 1939, the extension sponsored engineering programs aimed at increasing wheat acreages to feed soldiers.

“I thought this was so interesting, because it shows how we’re a grassroots organization that can tailor our programs to what the needs are,” Nansel said.

Agents like Nansel, Corey Childs, Mark Sutphin, Bobby Clark and Karen Poff, in offices throughout the Northern Shenandoah Valley, continue to serve their communities by providing unbiased, research-based information to residents.

Childs, who is based in the Warren County office, said extension provides foundational programs that help make people’s lives better.

“It encompasses everybody in the community. There’s not much out there that people have a need for that we don’t have at least some way to address it, or collaborate as a group to address it,” he said.

The extension works as the connecting unit between communities and research universities such as Virginia Tech or Virginia State University. Not only do they keep residents informed with the most up-to-date information, they also inform the universities about what residents need.

Sutphin, who is based in Frederick County and works with local tree growers as the horticulture specialist, noted, “Many of the programs that we still continue to this day are very similar to those we used to offer, even though the information and the research is always changing.”

Problems and pests frequently change, he said, but the ways in which those issues are addressed stay relatively the same.

The same is true for Nansel in the 4-H unit — the programs have increased due to the introduction of modern technology, but largely they offer the same sort of lessons to local youth that they always have: leadership, citizenship and life skills.

Others, however, such as Clark, in the Shenandoah County office, and Poff, in the Warren County office, pointed out that services they provide to the community, while similar in nature to those provided 100 year ago, change on a fairly regular cycle.

Clark specializes in crop and soil sciences. He said he finds himself working in five- to seven-year cycles on fairly big needs before they become self-sustaining.

“We try to work ourselves out of a job,” Clark said.

Poff has had similar experiences. She works in family and consumer sciences and said she finds herself working in the most pertinent issues facing local residents.

In the middle of her career, she was specializing in child care and parenting. But soon, more and more other agencies started providing similar resources, as they were recognizing the need that the extension was addressing.

From there, she started focusing on financial management, and found her knowledge had to be particularly specialized. With the downturn in the economy, many people had access to their own research tools to understand basic financial information. What Poff was able to provide were answers to complex financial questions.

“We change and adapt as the needs of the community change and as society changes, so we can always have our finger on the pulse of the community and know what needs to be addressed to solve future issues as well,” Poff said.

Childs pointed out that the biggest change the extension has seen in its 100 years is a growing gap between people and the agriculture industry. In the beginning, he said, many people had some tie to agriculture, and thus a tie to the extension.

In the past few decades, however, more people have moved away, causing the extension to work harder to reach them and provide their research-based information.

“We’re starting to see that come back full circle,” Childs added. “We’re finding younger individuals who may have lived someplace else come back to the area, and they come to us as a resource.”

The work the extension provides, Clark said, can help answer questions that society as a whole brings up, providing the factual information needed.

“We give them knowledge that empowers them to achieve their goals,” Clark said.

Learn more by visiting the extension’s website at http://www.ext.vt.edu.

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com