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Your Cooperative Extension Service

by Bonnie Sakadales

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Yes, Virginia, there are still "county agents." Once upon a time the Extension Agent was the farmer's best friend - advising how best to grow and market production crops and animals. Well, the county agents are still working, but not just for farmers. They are there to disseminate vital information about farming (still), residential agriculture, home economics, and 4-H clubs. There is a whole new look in the Cooperative Extension Service with free services to help you.

The Cooperative Extension Service began with the land-grant university system. When the federal government made land available to states for institutions of higher learning, it was also mandated that the research done at these universities be made available to the people of the state. Cooperative Extension Services provide the link between university and people in need of information that the university can provide. The "cooperative" part refers to the local governments, along with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which participate in funding of the Service, along with the sponsoring university. The specialists at Cooperative Extension are university professors in the field - "agents."

Agriculture agents not only deal with farmers, but also home gardeners. Many counties have volunteer Master Gardeners who sole function is to help homeowners with lawn, shrub, tree and garden problems. This group can provide a virtually endless resource of information and assistance with soil testing, plant diagnoses and insect identification and problem-solving.

Extension help doesn't stop with growing things around the home but also provides help for inside your home as well. Nutrition information includes the most up-to-date research and agents teach topics such as sports nutrition, dietary needs of the elderly, and fast-food. Home Economists (officially Family and Consumer Scientists) teach family financial management through classes and counseling in budgeting, credit, insurance, retirement and estate planning. Free/inexpensive parenting classes are available which emphasize stress management, child-care practices, and self-esteem. Extension Home Economics is not just stitchin' and stirrin' anymore.

Kids can plug into Cooperative Extension by joining a 4-H club. The automatic savings of 4-H clubs is that there are no uniforms and sometimes no dues. Children learn practical life skills in many subjects (even computers!) while helping their communities. It also reduces the need for expensive "entertainment."

Adults, also, will find lots of volunteer opportunities at their local CES; it beats watching television or more costly forms of recreation. One group of volunteers is a national organization call the Association for Family and Community Education. This group delves into subjects such as family life, schools, television programming, environment and international issues, working at the county, state, regional ,and national levels to bring about positive changes in our society. Membership is easy and you'll meet like- minded persons in your community. Members like to have fun, too; you can tell by the smiles on all their faces. Volunteers of almost any interest can find a place at their Cooperative Extension Service.

The folks at your local Cooperative Extension Service can help even the most dedicated Dollar Stretcher to stretch a dollar further. Most classes/services are free or inexpensive - funded by your tax dollar. Most universities publish free or low-priced "fact sheets" and booklets which may be obtained from the local CES about subjects ranging from ants in the garden to IRA's to preserving zucchini. Many CES offices are running on a shoe-string budget themselves so they have first-hand experience in saving money; compared to many, many government agencies they get a lot of "bang for the buck."

Your local extension office can be found in the phone book under "Government Listings" and also can be accessed through your local university's Internet home page. Expect not to be able to speak with an agent as they are usually out doing classes, but the support staff is knowledgeable and can point you in the right "dollar-stretching" direction.

Bonnie lives in Maryland with her two children and works as an Administrative Assistant for the Montgomery County Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Maryland. She is also a 4-H parent volunteer and Cooperative Extension Volunteer Financial Counselor.

Editor note: As a financial counselor, Bonnie sees many of the mistakes that wreak havoc on family finances. She's agreed to provide us with periodic case studies so that we can all learn how to avoid problems. We'll look forward to sharing her knowledge.

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