WSU extends helping hand to community

The entrance to the WSU Extension office at 328 W. Poplar St.

The entrance to the WSU Extension office at 328 W. Poplar St. Photo by Greg Lehman.

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WALLA WALLA — One hundred candles on a cake — that’s a great birthday!

The national Cooperative Extension Service has hit the 100-year mark this year. Officials with the local Washington State University Extension Office estimate the office here was established a bit later.

The service’s long history officially began May 8, 1914, when the Smith-Lever Act created the U.S. Cooperative Extension Service. This was connected to land grant universities to inform the public of current developments in agriculture, home economics, natural resources, public policy/government, 4-H and any related issues.

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Debbie Williams holds a beetle collection used to identify local bugs.

The extension offices provide educational programs and information to meet local needs. WSU is one of the universities charged with extending their knowledge and information to the public.

Debbie Williams, director of Walla Walla’s WSU Extension Office at 328 W. Poplar St., described the role of the extension office as bringing the research knowledge from the university to those in the local community.

Collaboration and cooperative efforts are a big part of how the organization works, with an eye always on the future and bettering lives. The extension service has several areas of focus within the mission of dispersing information to communities. These include health, wellness, food safety, agriculture, the Master Gardener program, other emphasis on weed control, identifying problem pests — insect or plant — and developing youth programs.

One of the extension office’s focal points is on 4-H and its role in youth development and resiliency.

“We value youth as an important part of our community,” Williams said. “4-H provides positive adult role models. We work with 350 to 500 youths in the community.”

Those numbers include those in a traditional 4-H club all year and those who only attend special events and workshops. The participants enjoy their 4-H projects, but beyond that, they are more likely to stay in school and be interested in science-based jobs. The STEM program — science, technology, engineering, math — has an emphasis on youth moving into those fields of study and employment to the benefit of all.

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Local beetles are arrayed in a small collection.

“Science is always a part of 4-H. They have fun with their projects but don’t realize just how much science is in everything, from adjusting a sewing pattern or cooking measurements,” Williams said.

Participants are branching out into rocketry, electricity, mapping, orienteering and more.

The extension office employs a full-time 4-H coordinator. Right now they are working on training more leaders.

“We do extensive background checks on those interested in being a leader,” Williams said. “We want to step up opportunities for teens and add more science. It gives them one more adult to not want to disappoint,” she said, adding, “As do churches and Camp Fire.”

In addition to networking with experts in various occupations, the extension office works with three main partners: Walla Walla County, the United States Department of Agriculture and WSU.

Williams is an associate professor with WSU. Early on her career path she planned to be a teacher or a veterinarian, but went into animal sciences. Now she can be involved with youth enrichment and work with animals as well.

She views the extension office as working as a team of about six staff members, 40 Master Gardener volunteers and 125 4-H volunteers.

The Master Gardener program is very popular. It takes about 50 hours of training to become a Master Gardener. After the training is completed, the Master Gardener volunteers at the office to help homeowners with issues such as insects, weeds, tree problems, disease and pests. They can check leaf samples under a microscope and help the homeowner with precise information and guidance to possible solutions.

“The volunteers really extend my time,” she said. “I come in and there are 20-some samples on my desk.”

While the Master Gardeners help with home gardening, Williams’ focus is on commercial operations. This covers anything with a potential economic impact, such as if a crop has an insect problem, or wheat rust, or weeds going from property to property. These are issues that are potentially economically devastating. The crops are the growers’ livelihoods and the economic engine of the region.

As she is an animal scientist, if the problem needs a plant specialist she calls on the help of others who are WSU plant experts.

“Our area is really very desert-like,” Williams said. And growers need as much information as possible to select the appropriate types of crops for the land they farm.”

The services to homeowners and growers are provided free as part of the agency’s mission of extending information and assistance to the area.

Another focus of the office is on food safety and preservation.

“For free we will check your canner gauges, when new and once a year afterward. It’s important to preserve food correctly. You can kill some bacteria by boiling but it won’t kill the toxins,” she said. “I want people to make more effort than that to keep themselves safe.”

Botulism is a big problem in food preservation.

“People just don’t fully recover from that,” she said.

Williams said she would like to offer food preservation courses, and that may be on the horizon. Right now a group of potential teachers are taking training.

The office can only provide information from approved websites, such as Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, WSU and U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“If it’s not research-backed, we can’t give it out,” Williams said.

For example, a friend’s great recipe can’t be included in their newsletter because it hasn’t been researched and tested.

“We’re very picky,” she said.

An additional part of focusing on health and wellness leads them to providing education about nutrition directed toward lower-income audiences, so they can stretch the food provided by food banks, school lunches and SNAP — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps.

Some items at the food bank might be very challenging to people who do not know how to prepare them.

“There is a generational gap in learning how to prepare food from scratch. The food bank may have bags of barley or rice, things like that. If you don’t cook them right they are almost uneatable. We go in with approved recipes to utilize the foodstuffs.”

The extension office offers many educational opportunities, one-on-one and outreach.

“But we don’t really do courses or classes per se. We need to get Master Gardeners to the point where we could offer community classes. The next step with the Master Gardeners is to have the capacity to have community programs.”

The local office was founded somewhere near 1917.

“That’s the best we can verify,” she said.

The last 100 years have seen tremendous growth and change in almost every area of life. While the desire to farm and grow a crop is much the same as before, the way it’s done and the resources a grower has available are much different. The extension office has changed, too. Well known for its massive amount of publications, it continues to distribute and store vast amounts of information. Although it’s not exclusively on paper, they still have a huge bank of filing cabinets.

“We have a website, that’s new. We used to spend about $6,000 for stamps and publications; now it’s half that or less. When someone brings in a sample to be checked we can email them the information,” she said.

The local office has several new staff members, and several long-term employees are retiring soon. Later this year, in October or November, Williams would like to have an open house to celebrate the centennial and for the community to meet the new staff.

There are many potential goals on the horizon, most dealing with increasing the educational offerings of the office.

“I would like to build a bigger 4-H program,” she said. “The capacity of this extension office has grown tremendously in the last 10 years.”

Karlene Ponti is the U-B specialty publications writer. She can be reached at 509-526-8324 or karleneponti@wwub.com.

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