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Virginia Cooperative Extension ‘a necessity,’ funding needed

virginia cooperative extension“What do you do for a living?” can be a complicated question for a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent to answer succinctly.

“In a nutshell, we extend the research of (the nation’s land-grant) universities out to the people, communities and businesses who need it so that we can improve lives,” explained Laura Siegle, an Extension agriculture and natural resources agent in Amelia County. “If one of our specialists discovers a new useful practice, we begin helping farmers implement it. If (a) university has new tools or resources available, we share those, and often we help develop them, too.”

Siegle writes a weekly educational newspaper column; shares new findings with local farmers, gardeners and landowners; and fields farming and gardening inquiries from the public. “One of my favorite types of farm visits,” she noted, “is one where a producer asks me to come take a look at a farm, help identify the forages growing there, determine the best plan to improve them, and help formulate a plan for some managed grazing. Likewise, if I meet someone who has never performed a soil test, I can come visit to show them how this process works, and often we end up discussing other pertinent land or pasture management questions.”

Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, the state’s largest agricultural organization, is encouraging state legislators to support proposed budget amendments that would provide an additional $2.5 million for Extension positions that have been lost, creating “gaps” identified by the state’s farmers. Farm Bureau also is encouraging support for proposed budget amendments that would provide an additional $3.75 million for Extension to upgrade equipment and create positions that would help farmers better utilize precision-based farming practices.

Virginia Cooperative Extension and the state’s network of agricultural research and extension centers function from a combined local, state and federal budget of nearly $90 million for the current biennium. “None of the specialist or local agent positions that Farm Bureau leaders feel are critical were funded by the 2018 General Assembly,” noted Martha Moore, VFBF vice president of governmental relations. “Those positions are a veterinary production animal specialist, a regional specialty crops position in Southwest Virginia, a small fruits and specialty crops specialist, two agriculture education specialists and two regional farm business management specialists.”

Additionally, Moore noted, the number of Extension agriculture agents in the Northern Neck, Middle Peninsula and other areas of Eastern Virginia has dwindled due to turnover and attrition.

Access to the findings of land grant universities’ research, via Extension agents and other Extension specialists, “is not a luxury for Virginia agriculture and forestry,” she asserted. “It is a necessity” for keeping the state’s largest industry viable.

She cited findings that for every dollar Virginia invests on Extension programs the return on investment is $1.34. Over the past five years, she noted, Extension has delivered more than 400 unique programs related to cattle across 60 counties. “This has increased the quality of the cattle to create the ability to develop collaborative marketing agreements and sales that increase farmers’ net returns.”

After one Extension forestry landowner program in Virginia, Moore said, 50 percent of attendees wrote management plans within five years of attending, compared to 3 percent nationally.

The plans foster improved wildlife habitats, fewer invasive species and higher returns on property owners’ investments, she explained. “And that, in turn, means more tax revenue for Virginia and a better timber product to support the industry.”

Each house in the General Assembly announced its revised budget Feb. 3, and each will vote on those budgets Feb. 7. However, discussion of changes to the budgets and consideration of funding for additional Extension positions will continue through the end of this year’s legislative session. The House of Delegates is proposing adding $1.25 million to fill positions. The Senate did not include any additional funding for filling vacant positions.

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