WVU's front porch - the local extension service
Many people think the local extension office is there to help farmers grow taller corn or bigger cattle - and that's true - but the service is there for everyone in the community.
The West Virginia University Extension Service (WVUES) vision is to "meet the changing lifelong learning needs of people, organizations, and communities by putting knowledge to work."
People, organizations and communities - not just big farms.
All the research and discovery happening in the labs and classrooms at WVU wouldn't be worth much if it just got filed away in a library or put on a computer disk somewhere. The university reaches out, through extension offices, to put those discoveries to work in practical applications.
Scientists and other academics, who work so hard to make those discoveries, surely are inspired to see their work having a beneficial impact in West Virginia communities.
The Pocahontas County WVUES office is located on the bottom level of the county courthouse. Three people work there, putting knowledge to work: Agriculture and Natural Resources agent Greg Hamons; 4-H, Youth Development and Families and Health agent Shirley Wilkins and administrative assistant Connie Burns. Hamons and Wilkins are WVU employees; Burns is employed by the county.
Wilkins has been with the local WVUES office since October 2000, and previously worked in the Pendleton County office. The agent said the extension office is where most local residents have contact with WVU.
"We're like the front porch of the university," she said. "We are the part of the university that most people see first. We are an outreach - an extension of the university, as far as all the research that they do. Anything that is available at the university, we try to put that to practice in the counties, as needed."
Wilkins said sometimes it takes years to see the positive results of WVUES youth development activities.
"Some of the impact of what we do, we can see immediately, through surveys, or anything that measures how much knowledge someone has," she said. "But, more than anything else, it's seeing what we've shared with people being put into practice. Whenever you're talking about youth, you may not see the results of what's happened to someone through the 4-H program until they become young adults or adults. So, it's more long term impact that we observe more than anything."
The 4-H, an informal youth education program, is one of Wilkins' big responsibilities. 4-H is designed to teach leadership, citizenship, and life skills to youths, in a safe and fun environment. The group has 200 members in Pocahontas County and more than 56,000 statewide. The annual 4-H camp at Camp Pocahontas in Thornwood is the highlight of the summer for many 4-H members and counselors.
Another important WVUES youth program is Energy Express, an Americorps project funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service. The WVUES leads the six-week summer reading and nutrition program, which serves dozens of Pocahontas County elementary school students every year.
Many extension offices have a third agent for Families and Health programs, but Wilkins serves in that capacity, too. Among her Families and Health responsibilities is the Community Educational Outreach Service (CEOS) program.
"As far as Families and Health, one big thing that we have coming up is - we have the CEOS clubs in the county, which used to be the extension homemaker clubs," she said. "We're training dining with diabetes classes right now. We have those for Mondays in April and that is for anyone who has diabetes or anyone who cooks for diabetics, and their caretakers. We do that in conjunction with Pocahontas Memorial Hospital."
Argriculture and Natural Resources agent Hamons is the "cows and clover" guy that people associate with the extension service. The big, strapping Droop Mountain native loves nature and the outdoors, and set himself on course to get a forestry degree while he was still a student at PCHS.
Cows and clover are within Hamons' responsibilities. He serves as the secretary with the Pocahontas Producers Cooperative and assists with livestock marketing.
"Typically, I'll help them market about $2.5 million worth of livestock, every year, give or take a little bit," he said. "A lot of what I do with agriculture is technical assistance on livestock questions, animal health questions and crop assistance questions, whether that be questions on pesticides, or what varieties of vegetables or fruit trees do the best."
In addition to farm assistance, Hamons provides cutting-edge WVU information to individuals who need help in their backyards. The agent gives or arranges classes on diverse topics such as shiitake mushroom cultivation, wood identification, fruit tree grafting and herbal and medicinal plants.
In a small orchard behind the Pearl Buck's Birthplace recently, he presented a free workshop on apple tree and grapevine pruning, attended by a respectable contingent of about 25 students.
"I really enjoy doing workshops like I did the other evening," he said. "I like to get out and meet with folks and talk with people and they have specific questions, where it's hands-on and I can show them exactly what I'm talking about," he said.
Hamons said misconception of WVUES services remains a problem.
"A lot of folks don't know what the extension service is - still," he said. "Unless they came up through the 4-H, they don't know what the 4-H does. They didn't know we offer soil testing as a free service or all the technical assistance we offer. We have specialists available in just about any field you can think of."
The WVUES will test your garden or flower bed soil, at no cost, and tell you how to adjust it for your particular crop. Anyone can pick up a sample collection kit at the WVUES office in the courthouse and drop it off for testing.
"That's one of the main things to let people know - that we'll serve anyone from somebody who's got a flower pot on their windowsill to the biggest farmer in the county," Hamons said.
An extension office usually has three agents, but Pocahontas County has just two, so Burns stays busy helping Wilkins and Hamons with their respective areas, as well as keeping the whole place organized.
Burns said the best part of her job is getting out of the office to help with the various workshops and 4-H activities. The Marlinton native said the county extension program was especially strong because of support from within the community.
An example of that local support was seen on March 12, when Mitchell Chevrolet donated the use of their building for the annual 4-H ham, bacon and egg auction, which netted more than $18,000 for members of the 4-H and the Future Farmers of America.
All three Pocahontas County extension workers have degrees from WVU. Wilkins holds a master's degree in education administration; Hammons, a master's in forestry science, and Burns, a bachelor's degree in business administration.
A schedule of numerous upcoming WVUES classes and activities can be found in The Pocahontas Times. For more information on WVUES programs, stop by their office in the courthouse, call 304-799-4852, or see www.ext.wvu.edu on the web.