Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a series of articles profiling the different departments in Surry County government.
DOBSON — The traditional mission of the Surry County Cooperative Extension Office is changing with the times, according to Director Bryan Cave.
“We plan our programming based on local needs,” he said from his office this week. “Those needs are identified through an advisory leadership system made up from people from different areas of the county who get together and talk about the issues affecting their individual communities.”
The extension is an educational partnership between N.C. State University, N.C. A&T State University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Surry County.
Its mission is to “deliver education and technology that enriches the lives, land and economy of local citizens.”
And the way it accomplishes that mission is changing.
Traditionally, if a person thought about the cooperative extension, he thought about agriculture and farming. While the extension is still heavily involved in these areas, its mission is expanding to keep up with what’s happening in the county.
“We’re also involved in educating youth through the 4-H program as well as community and economic development. We educate people in the family and consumer sciences like health and wellness and work with people in issues related with Medicare Part D to help them select their insurance,” Cave said. “But our bread and butter is still agriculture.”
And with the numbers involved, it only makes sense.
Last year, the cooperative extension reached more than 7,500 young people through training, clubs and special-interest programming including such varied offerings as seminars on healthy eating to learning about natural resources.
His office helped more than 80,000 people who called with questions during the year, answers that provided concrete benefits to the county.
“Last year, the benefits to the county from extension programming was about $3.4 million,” Cave said. “And that comes from services provided with a local budget of $270,000.”
Of that $3.4 million, about half of those savings were related to agriculture, he noted.
Cave pointed to work conducted with wheat producers in the county last year.
“We worked with four farms to help get them involved in a statewide insect study,” he said. “What the program ended up doing is helping them avoid spraying insecticides. It saved those four growers about $10,000 last year, and the really neat thing is that information was shared with other wheat growers in the county and they’ll do the same thing this year.”
Pilot Mountain Pride is another group closely associated with the extension office.
The agricultural aggregation center is a way smaller, local producers can compete with larger companies to market their product.
“It allows the small farmers to enter the regional market by combining their product to allow them to sell locally at a higher volume,” Cave said. “It just creates marketing opportunities and gives them access to sales outlets they might not otherwise have.”
Asked why his office is still needed in the information age, Cave smiled.
“We really do touch on a lot of different areas here,” he said. “All of the information we give is research-based and unbiased. We’re changing knowledge into know-how.
“We bring unbiased information to people that’s specific to this area and package it in a way that’s easily understood and implemented. It’s customized information.”
And with 20 percent of the local economy agriculture-based, that’s a huge mission.
“We can’t afford to lose that agricultural base in Surry County,” Cave said. “While they’re not all farmers, between 16 and 17 percent of the county workforce work in areas that are tied to agriculture.”
That translates to a farm economy of about $220 million a year.
“That’s a huge piece of the economic fabric of our county,” Cave said.
Is his office still relevant in the Information Age? Cave thinks so.
“I think we’re more relevant today than we’ve ever been, with the whole local food movement and with people trying to get back to healthy, locally-grown food,” he said. “There is a lot of desire for how to do that, and we’re filling that need.
“It’s not just agriculture anymore, but we’re still more relevant today than we’ve been in the past.”
Reach Keith Strange at firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-1929.