When Cooperative Extension was launched in the early 20th century, its agents spread throughout the state and country with its gospel of scientific farming and better methods of food preservation. Though its vision may have adjusted to the times, its passion for taking the university to the people is as strong as ever.

If you stay overnight in Republic, everyone you meet is going to ask, “So what brings you to Republic?” You don’t just wander into Republic, because it’s not on the way to anywhere. You come to Republic for a reason. Republic is the county seat of Ferry County, which is a little larger than Delaware, but with a population of 7,000. Ferry County is nestled in the rugged Kettle Range just south of the Canadian border, knee-buckling-gorgeous country, breaking down to the dry spare hills above Lake Roosevelt, which bounds it on the east and south.

What brought Dan Fagerlie to Republic in 1982 was he was fresh off a degree in agricultural economics at Washington State University and looking for a job. He got an offer, a hot-shot corporate position in Chicago. And turned it down. Exasperated, his advisor exploded, “Jiminy criminy, if you don’t want a real job, go upstairs and talk to Extension.”

Real job? A management sales position comes with a clear-cut job description. Working for Cooperative Extension does not. A management sales position can make you a lot of money. Working for Extension won’t. But then, sales isn’t for everybody.

Created by the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, Cooperative Extension is the extension of the land-grant university, which was created by the Morrill Act, signed by President Lincoln 50 years earlier.

The Morrill Act was a radical notion. In return for grants of land, land-grant universities were commanded to offer education to the middle and lower class, something that hitherto had been unimagined.

So why not take it a step further? Why not take education to the people? The work of Cooperative Extension was “to consist of giving of instruction and practical demonstrations in agriculture and home economics to persons not attending or resident in said colleges . . .” Its philosophy–”help people help themselves.”

Every one of Washington’s 39 counties–and nearly every one of the nation’s 3,150 counties–has a Cooperative Extension office. The country has changed dramatically since Extension was created, and its mission is no longer so purely rural.

But Extension personnel are as passionate as ever about bringing the university to the people.

“It’s a calling,” says Fagerlie, who has been making things happen in Republic as Ferry County Extension agent ever since he turned his back on the corporate world.

On the beach

Two hundred miles and a ferry ride to the west, Extension agent Don Meehan found his calling on the beaches of Island County.

It’s not too much of a stretch to call Island County’s Whidbey and Camano islands a temperate paradise. Largely rural, Whidbey is long and slender and lovely, its economy based on the naval base and tourism. It is just hard enough to reach to keep out the immigrant hordes from the mainland one would expect in such a place. Still, growth is on every islander’s mind. From a population of barely 6,000 in 1940, the county is currently home to over 71,000. Forty thousand new residents are expected over the next two decades.

In spite of the population pressure, the county’s beaches are generally very healthy, says Meehan. And that’s how he and the Beach Watchers, a group of Extension volunteers organized by Meehan and coordinated by Sarah Schmidt, aim to keep them.

The inspiration for Beach Watchers was sparked by a program in Clallum County called Bay Watchers. But Bay Watchers’ interest focused only on the watersheds. It stopped at the beach, says Meehan.

He started thinking about the beach as an indicator zone. If tankers illicitly dump waste, it ends up on the beach. Pollution from upland watersheds has to cross the beach.

“It’s a transitional zone,” he says.

So one of the Beach Watchers’ major tasks is to keep their eye on many of the county beaches–26 of them. They maintain species lists and note changes in beach ecology. “We know exactly what’s happening on our beaches,” says Meehan. “We have great data.”

Their goal is to establish a baseline for what is a healthy beach, then make sure their beaches stay that way. Toward that end, Meehan’s volunteers go through a rigorous training program, experiencing as many as 40 instructors.

Volunteers are not automatically accepted. They must go through an interview process and be selected. “We discriminate,” says Meehan. “Does this individual know what it means to be volunteer?” A lot of people just love to learn about nature, he says, “but they don’t do a dang thing for their community.”

Once admitted as a volunteer, the candidate must commit to 100 hours of service over two years. This service comes not only in the form of monitoring the beach, but perhaps more significantly, through education. The student volunteer becomes a teacher.

Driven by the notion that the more you know about something, the more you care about it, Beach Watchers take their knowledge to islanders and tourists. Lyla Snover, a native of Whidbey, and Rowena Williamson lecture on the ferry about marine ecology. Sandy Dubpernell, who works as volunteer office manager at the Admiralty Head Lighthouse, the Beach Watchers headquarters, also gives talks at the Coupeville wharf about Rosie, the gray whale whose skeleton hangs from the wharf ceiling, another Beach Water project.

Beach Watchers help out at Rosario Beach in Deception Pass State Park, which was almost ruined by its popularity among Seattle schools. Time was, fleets of school buses would pull up and disgorge hordes of hyper kids out for a day’s fun, spreading across the beach like hungry locusts, loving it and destroying it at the same time.

Beach Watchers teamed up with the state park to organize a less invasive approach. Now schools must make reservations. Every student gets a lecture on beach etiquette from a beach watcher. Beach watchers oversee the expeditions, identifying tide pool life for the students and making sure they don’t disturb it. What was once beach chaos is now, says Meehan, a total learning experience. And Rosario is getting back to normal health.

Meehan and Schmidt stress that beach-watching is more than just watching the beach. It teaches the interconnectedness of an island. Beach watchers educate their fellow islanders about reducing non-point-source pollution, protecting and conserving groundwater, preserving bluffs and shorelines, protecting eelgrass beds and forage fish spawning beaches, maintaining septic systems, and much more.

Their vigilance paid off recently when two beach watchers found Spartina anglica, or English cordgrass, growing on the beach near Coupeville. (See the Summer 2002 WSM.) Spartina is a persistent and aggressive invasive plant that has taken over large areas around Puget Sound. Being beach watchers, they recognized the threat and alerted Judy Feldman, who combines her role as noxious weed coordinator for Island County and outreach coordinator for Beach Watchers. There will be no invasion of their beaches. 

Clearing the scenery of weeds

Water is very much a concern in Ferry County–and therefore to Dan Fagerlie. Steep terrain and shallow soils have left Ferry County vulnerable to erosion, flooding, and groundwater contamination.

Exacerbating the erosion problem was a massive invasion of diffuse knapweed. Knapweed crowds out the native vegetation that holds the soil in place. Whole mountainsides were covered by the nasty invader and washing away. The only cure seemed to be helicopter spraying, which is very expensive. And didn’t work very well, unless it was long-term, with repeated applications.

But Dan Fagerlie had an idea. Fagerlie is full of ideas. In fact, he seems to get a new idea about every minut
e or so.

Increasingly, Extension is a tenuous dance among the needs of the community, the entrepreneurial skills of the county agent, and available money. Grant money, that is. Every extension agent who’s been around a while remembers the day not too long ago when extension agents could not apply for grants. Just talk to the farmers and keep an eye on those 4-H kids. That’s all you’ve got time for. But as regular funding dwindled, agents were told to “seek and ye shall survive.” That survival increasingly depends on the ability of agents to assess the needs of their communities and find grant money to meet those needs.

Historically, Extension has been funded by a unique federal, state, and county collaboration. Increasingly, however, Washington State’s contribution have shrunk.

“In 1980, 80 percent of Extension funding was by the state and county,” says Extension Dean Mike Tate. “Now it’s half that.”

“Everything I need to know in Extension I learned in a marketing class,” says Fagerlie. “Instead of going out and selling a generic program to everybody, we look at the audience and figure out what the needs are.”

Everywhere he looked, Fagerlie saw a need. He got a five-year youth-at-risk grant from the USDA, with which, in collaboration with the Colville Confederated Tribes, to rebuild an abandoned youth camp on the reservation, which makes up the southern half of Ferry County. He found money to build a 4-H challenge ropes course.

They hired tribal people and expanded into canoes and rock-climbing 4-H programs.

Then he found money to place a faculty extension agent on the Colville reservation, enhancing agricultural, 4-H, and other programs in collaboration with the Tribes.

Rural life and guns are a fact of life. People hunt in Ferry County. Gun safety education is a big need. “But everybody’s running scared from it,” say Fagerlie. So he embraced it, wrote a grant, started a very successful 4-H shooting sports program.

Same way he took on knapweed. Except there wasn’t a whole lot of money available for weed control. So think water quality. Big need, lots of grant money available. Well, Fagerlie thought, why not put the two ideas together?

Fighting knapweed generally means copious amounts of herbicides. Which pose a potential threat to . . . water quality! Got it? That’s how Fagerlie thinks.

By this time, he’d also realized he couldn’t get all these projects done by himself. So he translated this thinking into a USDA Extension Water Quality Grant to conduct water quality educational work in the area. He then hired Carolyn Blake to coordinate the water quality part and Daro Palmer to handle the biocontrol. Since then, they have secured separate bioagent funds from the Forest Service, Tribes, and others.

Working closely with WSU entomologist Gary Piper, Palmer, Fagerlie, and recently-hired WSU graduate Dale Whaley have introduced insects that just love to eat knapweed. The results have been phenomenal. Ranchers call Fagerlie up just to tell him how nice that patch above their spring looks where they couldn’t spray, what with the bugs having eaten all the knapweed and the native bunchgrass coming back.

Blake has developed an extraordinarily innovative program in the public schools.

Seventy percent of the water supplies in the county are private. Of course, everybody wondered what the water in those wells and springs was like, what with the mining and all. But the grant backing the idea wouldn’t pay for water sampling. Well, why not have the kids do it themselves as an educational project?

So Blake goes into the sixth-grade classrooms throughout the area and gets them thinking about the water they drink–and shows them with a projection microscope what wondrous creatures could be living in it. Including, by the way, E. coli and coliform. And draws on WSU publications and research to show them how groundwater works and how nitrates can leach into it. And gives them sampling bottles. And they get all excited. Especially when they publish their results in The W.E.T. (Water Education and Training) Look, the newsletter that goes to every household in the county, reports in its most recent issue there was no E. coli in the last round of testing, a welcome improvement from the year before.

Second-graders learn a few basics about the water cycle, about how much water is in their bodies. Third-graders learn about soils.

Fourth-graders learn about the salmon cycle and build watershed models of where they live. They start with topographic maps, cut out carpet pad layers to build the elevations, cover them with cheesecloth and plaster of Paris, and use felt for vegetation, then start testing with spray bottles to examine the effects of runoff after a fire. Or knapweed.

They use sponges for wetlands, then take them away to see what happens.

Then, says Blake, “We teach kids how to become teachers.”

Teaching them to fish

According to a survey just released by Brandeis University, Washington State ranked first in the nation in “food insecurity.” Food insecurity is a measure of whether there is enough food in the house to feed everyone.

How can this be? One of the most diverse agricultural producers in the nation, Washington has been a leader in fighting hunger, says Sue Butkus. “So we were stunned” by the survey.

Stunned in spite of the nature of her job. From the WSU Research and Extension Center in Puyallup, Butkus and Kathleen Manenica manage a $4.5 million program, funded in part by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, aimed at improving the nutrition of disadvantaged and low-income Washingtonians.

Named “Food Sense,” the program reached 30,000 people throughout 18 counties in Washington last year, half of them school children. Most of the adults were in groups of five or six.

Washington has a very high rate of immigration, says Manenica. The immigrant population is primarily Hispanic and Asian, but also includes a large number of Ukrainians and Russians. Program materials are printed in seven languages.

Food Sense works through a large number of community agencies and organizations, including school districts, Community Service (formerly food stamp) offices, Even Start/Head Start, food banks, senior centers, homeless shelters, and many more. The USDA Food and Nutrition Service provides funding with match requirements. State, city, and county governments provide much of the matching funds.

As with Beach Watchers, students become the teachers.

Actual hunger is only one of the nutritional problems addressed by Food Sense. According to Manenica, families with the lowest incomes also have the poorest diets, fewest skills to stretch their food resources, most food-related disease, and poorest school performance. Food Sense addresses these needs by teaching young mothers how to shop more wisely and by teaching children basic nutritional requirements, which they can then take home to their families. Children start making food decisions in the fifth or sixth grade, says Manenica. “It’s amazing to see how they influence buying habits of families.”

Food Sense also tackles food insecurity by teaching good-tasting and nutritious recipes using economical ingredients and by teaching people how to better use food that is available. For example, let’s say you’ve never cooked anything more complicated than a TV dinner (you know who you are), and the good people at the food bank give you a hunk of buffalo. What are you going to do with it?

A related program that is growing rapidly is diabetes awareness education. Among Food Sense’s target groups, as many as 40 percent of some groups suffer from diabetes.

Yet another major emphasis of Food Sense encourages families to eat together more often. According to research–and the common sense of some–not only does eating together improve the nutritional quality of meals, it strengthens the bonds between family members, enables children to do better in school, and reduces the risk of substance abuse among teenagers.

The best thing about the program is that it works. Food Sense is designed so results can be tracked. “Over half of the people are planning meals more often,” says Manenica. If you plan ahead, you spend less money and have less waste. Forty-six percent are comparing prices at grocery store, over half are using a shopping list, and 46 percent are able to stretch food resources till the end of the month.

High expectations

But why is Extension doing this? Why not the Department of Health and Human Services? Or Health and Welfare?

“Because we’re an educational institution,” says Butkus. “We’re not a regulatory or social services organization. We know that with education people are able to make ends meet better. They have better nutrition, they’re healthier, the kids stay in school more.”

This theme, and the subtle distinction involved, is a mantra of Extension people. Meehan stresses over and over that Beach Watchers is an educational, not an activist venture. “We don’t beat people over the head with an anti-pollution message.”

In Ferry County, how do you best improve water quality? By building a curriculum around it.

When George A. Nelson arrived in Wahkiakum County in 1913 as the first Extension agent in Washington, more than 20 percent of the nation’s population was rural. His job was to “help farmers help themselves.” Today, fewer than 2 percent of Americans live on farms.

Agricultural extension remains a vital, and diverse, part of Cooperative Extension’s mission. In Washington, this varies widely in form and focus. In Central and Southeastern Washington, the heart of the state’s tree-fruit industry, Extension works closely with industry to coordinate WSU research efforts with the needs of industry growers.

In northern and a western counties, the effort is directed more to small-scale farmers and urban gardeners. Extension has helped develop learning centers at locations throughout the state, where place-bound students can nevertheless achieve a degree from WSU. In Olympia, Extension directs the Energy Program, a multi-million-dollar brain trust and clearinghouse. And a WSU Extension forester has a spot in the College of Forestry at the University of Washington!

“The UW has the horticultural capacity,” says Extension dean Mike Tate, “but we have the outreach.”

In fact, if you keep your eyes open, you’ll see signs of WSU Cooperative Extension everywhere you go in Washington. In spite of its presence and tradition, however, it still faces uncertain funding and endorsement by a legislature that seems interested only in undergraduate numbers. The uncertainty and soul-searching have left a lot of casualties along the way.

But as the preceding examples have shown, many of Extension’s leaders have risen to the challenge and displayed an extraordinary level of entrepreneurism.

“The people who are left are the superstars,” says Tate. “Expectations are way up.”

And maybe those expectations are unrealistic. Times have changed, and so have funding realities. Regardless, for those still dedicated to bringing the university to the people, Tate’s vision, “WSU working on the welfare of the state,” and “taking the University to the people” are one and the same.