Number of extension agents far fewer and still declining

Published 12:45 pm Wednesday, November 1, 2017

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

Surry County lost its longtime cooperative extension agent in January and Isle of Wight lost its full-time agent by mid-year.

Surry’s extension position became vacant when veteran agent Glen Slade retired Jan. 1. Dr. Janet Spencer, who was Isle of Wight’s agent, is now the southeast district director who covers 33 localities.

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So far, those two positions have not been filled, and the two offices are relying on agents from neighboring counties to fill in the gaps.

Meanwhile, Isle of Wight County resident Mel Atkinson complained to the Board of Supervisors at its Oct. 19 meeting about the lack of 4-H agents, who also work in the local extension offices. In the case of the Isle of Wight County 4-H agent, that individual is shared with Southampton County, he said.

Many phone calls are not being answered, Atkinson said. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

“The demand … is too great for one person,” he added.

Spencer said it was state and federal budget cuts last year that led to an early retirement incentive that, in turn, left 16 extension agent vacancies in the southeast district.

The district stretches from the counties of the Northern Neck and King William and King and Queen counties southwest to Southampton County and the entire Eastern Shore.

In all, Virginia has 107 local extension offices.

Spencer is on hand to assist, but spends a good deal of time in her car going from office to office in the southeast district, she said.

In Surry, the office wants to fill the position, but hasn’t received word yet, said Unit Director LaSonya White.

And while Virginia Tech administers the Cooperative Extension program, the funding does not come from the university, but the federal and state government — a common misconception, Spencer said.

Efforts to contact the Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension office in Blacksburg were unsuccessful.

Spencer said part of her job is identifying where to best place future agents to meet needs and remain within the confines of the available funding.  

Spencer doesn’t see that funding restored, either.

It’s been in a steady, slow decline for years, she said.

Spencer believes the program is sustainable, but perhaps needs some reinvention.

Atkinson, whose wife, Kimberly, is the 4-H agent for Isle of Wight and Southampton counties, said the localities need to step in, decide what it wants and needs, make that known to the state and then provide some funding, said Atkinson, who had worked as an extension agent in the past and is now the director of the Airfield Conference Center and Southeast Virginia 4-H Educational Center in Wakefield.

If not, “the silent majority is going to suffer,” he said, adding that Isle of Wight has shared its 4-H agent with Southampton for 10 years and it hasn’t worked.

Spencer said she had gone through three 4-H agents in the seven years she was with Isle of Wight and it was always a tough job to fill.

“The county and the stakeholders need to be involved,” Atkinson said.

Isle of Wight County Fair Chairman Danny Byrum also stressed to the supervisors Thursday the importance of the 4-H program to the fair.

“It’s a huge piece of what we do,” he said. 

In addition to assisting the agricultural community and 4-H programs for youth, the Extension Office oversees the Master Gardener and Master Naturalist programs, as well as many others, such as soil testing.

The Extension puts the knowledge gleaned from research and programs at Virginia Tech into the hands of the local community, Spencer said.

“Extension is the best kept secret in a locality,” Spencer said.

Spencer said a locality can opt to fund an extension agent, but that person would have to be a Virginia Tech cooperative extension employee and in turn, VT would bill the locality for the service.  {/mprestriction}