Civic Agenda: Education, research drive Whatcom County extension office

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJanuary 19, 2014 

Washington State University Whatcom County Extension is a small but busy part of government in Whatcom County. The WSU Whatcom County Extension office has been providing high quality public education that improves the quality of life for local residents since 1917. Before updating you on our many accomplishments, I would like to share the history of the nationwide system. Many people know us as Cooperative Extension. Our name has changed a little and our programs have grown, but we are the same organization.

In 2014, we celebrate the centenary of Smith-Lever Act, which established the Cooperative Extension Service in 1914, a unique educational partnership between the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the nation's land-grant universities and our county government partners that extends research-based knowledge through a state-by-state and county-by-county network of extension educators. For 100 years, the Smith-Lever Act has stimulated innovative research and vital educational programs for youth and adults through progressive information delivery systems that improved lives and shaped a nation.

Our approach to education is informal. We provide not-for-credit courses, workshops, symposia, consultations and research-based information that responds to the needs of our area and links citizens to the resources of the university. Our mission is that Washington State University Extension engages people, organizations and communities to advance knowledge, economic well-being and quality of life by fostering inquiry, learning and the application of research. Our approach is to ask questions about what is working and where there is opportunity to improve or add value to the people, organizations and communities we serve. We work with many different partners to strategically develop and deploy resources that can answer these questions and more. Our work is a public service.

This work is only possible because of the dedicated staff and volunteers who serve Whatcom County. Our office has four resident faculty members and several visiting or regional specialists. Our current resident faculty members focus on commercial agriculture and community horticulture, family and community health, water and natural resources and youth development. Our visiting faculty members focus on forestry, animal agriculture and local food systems. I serve as the department head within county government and as the county director in the WSU system. I am one of the four resident faculty members and provide leadership for the family and community health program. We have a variety of full-time and part-time staff who support the work in our four program areas. One of the core elements of our work is that done by our amazing volunteers. Our two marquee programs that use volunteers to deliver the education are 4-H youth development and master gardeners. We are proud to train and support the 4-H youth development program volunteers and all the youth who engage in the program. We have 280 adult 4-H volunteers who guide more than 1,100 youth. Our master gardener program works with 200 volunteers in a year who take rigorous training and maintain their certification through education. Our commercial agriculture and community horticulture program is robust. The commercial agriculture program provides educational outreach and field-based research. In 2013, the Washington Small Fruit Conference, northwest Washington Sustainable Agriculture Conference for direct-market farmers and the cultivating auccess class highlighted our outreach efforts. Field-based research in 2013 focused on bird management for fruit growers, evaluating short-season silage corn varieties for dairy farmers and monitoring dangerous and costly virus development in seed potatoes.

The community horticulture program mission is to educate and build capacity in our communities for stronger food security. In 2013 we partnered with communities, a local foundation, master gardeners and citizen gardeners to sustain our Community First garden project. The master gardener program is known throughout the county. The volunteers work on projects in a variety of places. Some of the most recognizable are the gardens at Hovander Homestead Park and the plant clinic in our office.

The family and community health program offers a variety of classes. We provide the Strengthening Families program for parents and youth 10-14 years in both English and Spanish in partnership with local school districts and communities. This past year, our Food $ense nutrition education program educated more than 5,000 people. We added diabetes prevention education in 2013 and have renewed our ability to answer phone inquiries about home food preservation and food safety by training and certifying two WSU food preservation and food safety assistants.

Our 4-H youth development works to further positive youth development in several areas. The traditional club program is strong in Whatcom County. Our office trains volunteers, develops and supports both teen and adult leaders in management roles for the 4-H Council and in the local clubs. Our 4-H youth development program has also engaged non-club youth in forestry education, natural resource stewardship, mentoring and experiential education.

Our water resources program is at the nexus of the issues our county and region face. Both WSU and the University of Washington Sea Grant program support our team. The program's goal is to protect and sustain the fresh and marine water resources that are treasured in our county. Whatcom Water Weeks and the two-day water symposium are both coordinated from our office. Direct education is provided on stormwater management on residential properties. Our program partners with others to monitor water quality in Bellingham Bay.

WSU Forestry Extension was added to our Whatcom County programs in 2013. A successful forestry field day was held in late July and in 2014 the forest stewardship coached planning course will be offered for our county landowners.

Our website, whatcom.wsu.edu, is one of the surest ways to keep up with us. You will find resources and information about current events and issues. We will be holding an open house and 100th anniversary celebration to honor the Smith-Lever Act and the founding of our nationwide network in May this year. We hope you will help us celebrate and we look forward to seeing you in the community.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Drew Lenore Betz is director of the WSU Whatcom County Extension program and serves as the department head for extension within Whatcom County government. She is a professor in the College of Agriculture, Human and Natural Resource Sciences and has just celebrated her 20th anniversary at WSU. This is one of a series of monthly Civic Agenda reports The Bellingham Herald invited Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws to provide to share updates about Whatcom County issues and projects. He invites citizens to contact him at 360-676-6717 or jlouws@co.whatcom.wa.us.

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