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10/5/2003

Ag programs wither in budget crunch

By Julia Silverman
The Associated Press

HERMISTON, Ore. — In late summer, the air in this small town in northeastern Oregon is often weighted with the sweetish smell of watermelons, Hermiston’s best-known crop, which cover fields stretching in every direction from downtown.

But during fair week, other, more pungent, smells intrude: live chickens and hogs, corn dogs and hay, and the collective, sweaty exuberance of the 4-H and Future Farmers of America kids, who descend on the county fair, a high point of the year in many rural communities.

The fair is impossible to picture without the younger generation. Their quilts are neatly hung, their flower arrangements and place settings are on display, the livestock that they’ve raised are docile in their pens, waiting for ribbons and buyers.

But both 4-H and FFA have been hit hard by budget cuts in Oregon, throwing a damper on the two organizations, which together are the backbone of agricultural education in the United States.

“I have been an agent in Oregon for 16 years,” said Patricia Dawson, Umatilla County’s extension agent, through Oregon State University. “And I have been through cuts before, when we rolled up our sleeves. This time, we are out of sleeves.”

The same cuts are also being felt elsewhere across the country: In Minnesota, the state has gotten rid of extension offices in each of 87 counties, and replaced them with 20 regional offices. In Massachusetts, university administrators said recently that they’d like to eliminate all state funding for 4-H over the next two years. And in Nebraska, state fair officials had to get rid of cash prizes for youth livestock winners at the state fair this year because of budget owners.

The cuts are coming at the two programs from all directions, from the state level and from local schools, from county governments and from university systems.

An FFA program, for example, can’t exist unless a local high school offers agriculture education courses, in which students study agricultural science, horticulture, forestry and agrimarketing.

But in Oregon, districts have been coping with declining state aid for several years. That’s led many schools, particularly those in smaller communities, to eliminate anything that’s not part of the core curriculum of math, English, science and history. That means so-called “extras” like music, art, gym, and agriculture education have often fallen by the wayside.

4-H, to some extent, has tried to fill that gap, although 4-H programs and projects are after-school activities. But in order for 4-H to operate, the program needs funding from three separate entities: the federal government, via the U.S. Department of Agriculture; the state government, through the extension services budget for land grant universities; and local counties, which are responsible for providing clerical support and office space.

If any one of those legs falls apart, the rest of the funding can dry up. That’s what happened in Multnomah County, Oregon’s most populous, when county commissioners decided this year that their strapped budget couldn’t support
4-H. The county program was dismantled this summer.

In Hermiston, a Hispanic outreach position was eliminated, despite the county’s fast-growing immigrant population. And Oregon State University has reduced funding for extension agents statewide, sending full-time workers to half-time positions and eliminating some jobs entirely.

Paradoxically, the cuts come even as participation in the two programs has risen. Nationally, about 461,000 students belong to the FFA, up about 80,000 students from 1991. Membership in 4-H is even larger: 6.8 million in 2000, up from 6 million two years earlier, according to the organization. Some of the greatest gains have come in urban areas, program officials said.

At the recent Umatilla County Fair, the turnout was fairly diverse: girls in eyebrow rings stood next to boys in cowboy hats sizing up sheep in the livestock judging competition, checking for good rib coverage and sturdy skeletal frame, lean stomachs and long groins.

“FFA is the reason some kids are still in school, just like the kids who play sports,” said Shannon Boettcher, a standout in Umatilla County’s FFA and 4-H programs.

Still, Boettcher and others said the cutbacks have made a noticeable difference in recent years. Bill Umbarger, who teaches agriculture education at Pendleton High School, said he has heard of many of his colleagues across the state being cut back, and that many no longer are contracted to continue working with their students during the crucial summer fair season.

“I came from a farm background, and I know that only 2 percent of the people involved in agriculture are in production,” Umbarger said. “Someone has to be out there who understands what it takes to get these animals to market, processed and delivered. That is where these kids are headed.”

And parent Teres Douglas, whose two sons showed up for livestock judging on a hot, humid day at the fair dressed in their woolen 4-H jackets, said Oregon’s dragging economy also hasn’t helped the program.

“The children don’t get their prices back on the livestock anymore,” she said. “That was for the college fund.”

Dawson said she’s been relying more and more on hardy, helpful community volunteers, but that she fears they are getting overworked.