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Extension Service touts urban focus
[September 24, 2006]

Extension Service touts urban focus

(Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (IA) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Sep. 24--WATERLOO -- Farmers piled into coach cars behind a steam engine where instructors from Iowa State College would teach them about new techniques to improve their corn crops before packing up and chugging down the tracks to another small town.

The year was 1904. Iowa's seed corn train was one of the first outreach efforts by the state's only land grant college to use its research and educational gains to improve the lives of residents across the state.

More than a century later, the Iowa State University Extension Service has 100 offices, including one on University Avenue in Waterloo.

"Agriculture and the Youth 4-H program are still the traditional image and are still very much a part of what we're doing," said Al Ricks, director of Black Hawk County Extension. "But a lot more has been added in the last 30 years."

Today, Black Hawk County Extension reaches more than 9,000 children with its services, teaching them not only about cornstalks and cows but about science, self-esteem and respect. Extension specialists work with families on nutrition programs and teach new Bosnian and Hispanic residents how to navigate grocery stores when they don't speak English and prepare healthy meals with unfamiliar products.

Extension trains the pesticide applicators who treat lawns, and teaches restaurant workers who prepare food how to keep customers safe. It is responsible for training every poll worker in the state to ensure fair and well-run elections.

"I used to think I knew a lot about Extension because I was a volunteer," said Ricks, who was hired to lead Black Hawk County Extension in January. "But it was the tip of the iceberg."

County Extension backers are working overtime this fall to highlight its services to the public and explain how programs benefit urban dwellers at least as much as the farm families that forged Extension's traditional identity.

They will be asking them in the Nov. 7 general election to approve a referendum to more than double the amount of property taxes Black Hawk County's Extension Council can collect.

Small piece of tax pie

Sharon Juon, who is co-chairing the Friends of Extension group raising funds and promoting the referendum, is hoping the third time is the charm for the levy, which failed in 1994 and 2002, the last vote going down by a narrow margin.

"From the Extension side, we didn't get the message out very well," said Juon, noting neither referendum faced organized opposition.

Black Hawk County Extension has been frozen by state law at a maximum $150,000 property tax asking since 1985. Legislators raised the cap in 1992, and the ballot this year would authorize the elected Extension Council to boost its tax collections countywide to $405,000.

While the percentage increase is large, Juon notes approving the measure would have only a minor effect on local property tax bills due to the Extension Service's relatively miniscule portion of the overall tax bill.

"We're still talking about small amounts when you look at all of Black Hawk County," she said. "We're talking peanuts."

Currently, the owner of a $100,000 home pays about $2 a year in taxes to the local Extension office. The total tax bill on that home ranges from $1,500 to $2,000 annually depending on the various city, school and county taxes collected in different communities.

Passage of the referendum could potentially boost the Extension annual tax collection to about $5.35 on a $100,000 home, assuming the Extension Council taxes at the full amount allowed.

Bruce Clark, who also co-chairs the Friends of Extension, said it is unlikely the Extension Council would utilize the full levy right away. Despite the $150,000 cap implemented in 1985, the Extension Council did not reach that level until 1994.

"There's plans to use the money that are very worthy," Clark said. "But I can't see the Extension Council going out and raising all that money in one year."

While Clark said the Extension Service would like to add a full-time horticulturist and another youth services specialist to its current four-person tax funded staff. He said the need for the tax increase is driven by the levy being frozen at its current level for a dozen years.

"The Extension Council has really been juggling the funds the way it is," he said. "It can't go on at the status quo forever."

Voters in 84 of the 100 Extension Council districts in Iowa have approved the levy, including Polk and Linn counties. Several other urban counties, including Scott, Dubuque and Woodbury, are joining Black Hawk in seeking voter approval this year.

Supporters note the measures face struggles in more urban counties because city-dwelling voters wrongly assume Extension doesn't serve them.

"Primarily people think of Extension as being for the farmers only," Juon said.

From farm to factory

Dianne Peterson dressed up like a cow at the recent National Cattle Congress fair and showed more than 1,000 second-graders from across Northeast Iowa how to churn milk into butter. Across the Electric Park Ballroom, volunteers played a pig trivia game modeled after the TV game show "Deal or No Deal."

"Most of these kids don't know that the leather in their shoes or cotton in their underwear comes from agriculture," said Mary TeWinkel, youth development field specialist for the Black Hawk County Extension Service. "We're hoping they learn about that, but we're really hoping it goes beyond that ... to respect and responsibility."

The Discovery Program, which 4-H and Extension have offered at NCC since 1989, is just one of many youth programs in the Extension umbrella.

The traditional 4-H program includes 350 children in 20 clubs countywide. But TeWinkel notes 4-H and school-based youth programs serve more than 9,000 children each year, including summer programs, day camps and the ECHOES after-school programs in Waterloo. Programs teach children about earth sciences, technology and food and nutrition, but have expanded into life skills.

While Ricks said many parents may know their children are involved in those programs at school, they don't realize the Extension Service is involved.

"We're doing things that have an impact, but for people to make that connection with Extension is our struggle," he said.

ISU teaches and conducts research in more than agronomy. And Extension's mission now involves taking information from other areas of study at the university and delivering it to residents.

Extension provides pesticide applicator training for farmers and business. "Any time you have a lawncare provider come to your home and spray for dandelions or crabgrass, it's Extension that provided the training," Ricks said.

And Extension's "Serve Save" program provides training for restaurant and food service workers from "country clubs down to fast-food hamburger places" on how to handle food safely for their diners, Ricks said. Extension also handles training for poll workers in all 99 Iowa counties.

"Again, when we go to vote ... I've never given a second thought as to who trains them on what to do," Ricks said. "But that's Extension."

ISU Extension also provides statewide service to businesses on setting up efficient manufacturing lines; provides training schools for directors of nonprofit organizations; trains all new John Deere employees on how the products they design and build are used in the field; provides a course on financial management skills and home budgeting every week at the YWCA in Waterloo; and even runs statewide hotlines, such as 1-800-BETS-OFF for problem gamblers.

Child-care centers and day-care providers are also trained by Extension.

Urban programs

Pat Fencl walked slowly around a table of house plants earlier this month while a group of 20 students took notes and asked questions about why their rose bushes wouldn't flower and other horticultural matters. Fencl, who coordinates Extension's Master Gardener Program with her husband, Dave, answered the questions with aplomb.

This is Extension's next class of master gardeners who will receive hours of training before becoming certified and donating many hours of community service back to the county. There are more than 300 master gardeners in the county now, and their mark is apparent.

"It was primarily the master gardeners that started the arboretum at Hawkeye (Community College), or at least they were instrumental," said Dave Fencl. "Green Scene uses a lot of master gardener help."

Master Gardener graduates also spend time at local garden centers, nursing homes and community projects, providing expert assistance. A new partnership with Habitat for Humanity will teach new homeowners how to maintain their yards and landscape.

The master gardeners also volunteer to staff Extension's "Hort-Line," answering questions about plant care for residents who call in. Others bring in diseased plants for the master gardeners to treat.

Another key offering, which focuses more heavily on the county's urban areas, is the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program.

"EFNEP is not just about how to can peaches anymore," said Ricks, referring to the program's early mission out of ISU's home economics program.

Ricks relates a story about an EFNEP field specialist who found a Bosnian immigrant's cupboards full of canned dog food. But no pet was in sight.

"She thought she'd found cheap meat," said Ricks. "For one who doesn't speak the language, how do you find your way through a grocery store or prepare healthy meals with unfamiliar products?"

Extension's EFNEP program now has both a Bosnian and Hispanic specialist working on nutrition issues with those growing populations. Others work with families and individuals with particular needs when it comes to food preparation and health. A new field specialist is working with the African-American community, targeting families of 10- to 14-year-old children, to work not only on nutrition but also on family communication skills and other social matters.

"Again, the Extension piece gets lost in the shuffle," Ricks said.

Many of Black Hawk County Extension's programs have managed to survive the lengthy freeze on its property tax collection thanks to grants and new fees charged for the service. Its total budget is $326,000 this year.

"The grants piece has been a lifesaver for us," Ricks said. "But 22 years ago kids could join 4-H without having to pay a penny, and our publications were free. Now we charge for those."

Contact Tim Jamison at (319) 291-1577 or at

Copyright (c) 2006, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Iowa
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.
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