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Local Extension Service offices support their communities with service projects such as 4-H clubs making quilts for the ambulance service and sheriff’s department. (Annette Tait)

S.O.S.: Save our (extension) service!

If you live rural, you probably use your cooperative extension service for something — it's a one stop shop for information and resources. What would you do if it closed?

Folks who live in urban areas — what we rural folks call "the city" — have all sorts of options for consumer information, horticulture and youth programs. They can go to community education classes, local nurseries, YMCAs, recreation districts and more.

Our smaller, rural towns pack those things into county extension offices. Our agents, through their state and national networks, have access to up-to-date research, new methods to cost-effectively increase yields and tools to help safely manage all sorts of resources.

It's not just an ag thing — extension agents help gardeners produce and preserve food, teach us how to provide pollinator habitat and how to plant and maintain fruit trees and windbreaks. They offer pesticide training and water and forage testing. And they help train our future leaders through programs that teach our young people management, communication, financial and leadership skills they will use for the rest of their lives.

Our home state of North Dakota is facing budget cuts that threaten extension offices in our smallest counties — those of 2,000 or fewer people. Under the proposed cost-share formula, which also revised the shared costs to include benefits as well as salaries, small counties have been singled out to pay 50 percent more than large counties: larger counties are scheduled to pay 40 percent of the cost-share, with the state paying the remaining 60 percent. For small counties, the numbers are flipped: a cost-share of 60 percent would fall on counties of fewer than 2,000 people, with only 40 percent covered by the state.

This makes little sense to those of us in small rural areas, where it is estimated 70 percent of residents make use of their extension offices. Moving to regional extension centers, like our neighbors in South Dakota and Minnesota have done in recent years, and staffing counties with varying levels of service depending on size, does not truly serve rural people.

A recent public meeting in one of the affected counties — Oliver — demonstrated the broad connection its people have to extension. As a small county, Oliver's 60 percent portion of the cost-share would mean an increase of roughly $23,000 per year, nearly doubling its current share of $28,440, a cost the county isn't sure it can cover.

More than 100 people showed up in support, stating the many extension programs they use, how frequently they make use of their agent's knowledge and resources, how extension has shaped their operations and their families, and how that would change if the local extension office closed.

More than 30 percent — 70 of the county's 210 students — are in 4-H youth programs. City and county residents alike take part in food safety, horticulture and community vitality programs. Pesticide training helps reduce the spread of noxious weeds in the county. Resources and technology help producers cost-effectively increase their yields, avoid unnecessary mortality and market efficiently and effectively.

Sure, those services would be available under consolidation, but only if people are willing to drive the distance to take advantage of them.

Most won't. Would you?

It's not enough to keep local extension offices open — the need is to maintain the level of services currently provided. Extension as a whole — as a network — provides far more than the sum of its parts. We need to keep the roots of extension — its agents — in local county offices, supporting rural people where they live and work.