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Extension agents still helping rural economies
Grass is always greener...
Don GardnerColor
Don Gardner is a University of Georgia Extension agent who lives in Bryan County. - photo by File photo

Gee, Don, being an ag agent seems to be a pretty fun job.

Yes, it is. Ag agents have the opportunity to help people. Our job is to give our customers the unvarnished truth as we know it so they can make informed decisions. We don’t tell people what to do. The decision is theirs.

Extension started in Georgia more than 100 years ago in 1914 as a way to take the knowledge gained from research by the university and put it into the hands of the people who needed it — Georgia’s farmers. Extension is all about helping farming be profitable and the farmers and their families successful.

Ag agents worked with farmers — usually the husband — on all the outside issues such as growing crops, animal husbandry, how and why to build barns and what tractor was the best for his operation. These were all the out-of-doors things.

4-H soon followed as a way to teach youngsters how to grow crops and grow up using the 4-H and ag agents as positive adult role models. Farm wives made the family’s clothes, cooked and canned food, made mattresses and did the financial management for the farm — the indoor stuff. The home economist position was created to supply farm wives with the latest advancements in cooking, canning, finances and health, and provide social interaction for the wives outside of church.

All this activity through Extension helped raise the standard of living in rural areas and increased the tax digest for their counties. As our state’s economy and our lifestyles have become more complicated, it is easy to lose sight of why we have an Extension.

Let’s look at probably the best example in southeast Georgia. Reid Torrance is a living legend in Extension. He was the Tattnall County ag agent. Many of his farmers grew onions. Reid worked closely with his growers and became an expert on sweet onions. He helped UGA researchers with test plots and experiments to determine why the onions in his area were sweeter than others. He was at the crossroads of research and commercial onion production. Through his study of the farms, their onions and the research it was discovered that onions in the Vidalia area were sweeter because of the soils and the climate.

Growers outside that area started calling their onions "Vidalias," cashing in on a name without the quality. Reid mapped out the extent of the conducive soils and organized area farmers (no small feat in itself) to seek marketing protection so only onions grown in 13 Georgia counties and parts of seven other counties could be called Vidalia onions. His leadership resulted in significant improvements in farm income and county digests not just in Tattnall County, but 19 others. It also made a national name for the onion and area. And he earned the undying respect of his colleagues.

A more recent example is the role of another ag agent and blueberries in Georgia. Danny Stanaland was the Bacon County agent stationed in Alma. Like Torrance, Stanaland learned everything he could about blueberries. He became a champion for blueberry production and pushed their culture for farmers that had the right soils and climate. He also was at the crossroads between commercial culture and research and, now that he is retired from Extension, is in high demand as a consultant. His success resulted not from organization and branding, but from turning farmers into millionaires.

He was so successful that in 2014, Georgia surpassed longstanding blueberry production giant Michigan. Alma is now the nation’s capital for blueberries.

This year, the state Legislature and governor approved 12 Extension agent positions to fill some of the statewide vacancies. Two of those positions were allocated to our 40-county district. One of those positions will fill the vacancy here in Bryan County. I hope it will be with an agent who will address all areas of agriculture and horticulture, as our county is very diverse.

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