Connection over comprehension: The University of Minnesota Extension Service may not be able to be things for all people, but it tries its best to help people find the information they need

Published 12:00 am Monday, March 24, 2003

If anything comes close to being all things for all people, it could be the University of Minnesota Extension Service.

There is some disagreement over that "all things for all people" assertion, but a case can be made.

It's current motto for 2002-03 is "Connecting community needs and University resources."

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The extension service enriches the community in many ways. There are three main focuses: community development and vitality, land, food and environment and youth development and family living.

It may sound ultra-sophisticated, but it's a mission statement that has described the extension service for decades.

Basically, it matches the university's resources and programs with Minnesotans.

And, yes, the local extension service still does the simple things, such as testing pressure cookers and identifying that weed growing in grandma's garden.

But the extension service is helped by broad strokes that paint a picture that touches so many lives.

Office support specialists Debbie Schammel and Cindy Allas, plus extension educator Sharon Davis and the other members of the Mower County Extension Service "team" have a new formula for dispensing information.

For instance …

Community vitality and development

Access eGov is an online guide and educational program that helps local governments weigh the opportunities and perils of technology as a way to engage citizens and provide services.

Access Minnesota Main Street is an online curriculum and hands-on electronic commerce educational program aimed at helping small businesses and entrepreneurs take advantage of technology.

At Your Service is an innovative customer service training program created specifically for the tourism and hospitality industry that combines the most current research in customer service with practical strategies for learning and using service concepts in everyday situations.

Other programs and services include Business Retention and Strategies, Certified Festival Management, Community Tourism Development, Economic Development Online, Minnesota Council on Economic Education, U Facilitate and U Lead (Leadership Education and Development).

Jerry Tesmer has been with the extension service for 15 years; all in Fillmore County until the current reorganization effort put him in Mower County for two days each week.

Tesmer saw the last effort to fine-tune the extension service, when the clusters of counties were developed.

Now, Tesmer, like other extension service educators, is being asked to change from a generalist to a socialist.

"I think we can be more efficient with specialization," Tesmer said.

In fact, Tesmer said the extension service has been specializing in specific areas for decades.

"In the 1950s, they say the extension service was big in the area of tourism in northern Minnesota, because the traditional programs and services weren't in demand there," he said.

Still, Tesmer said when he closes his eyes and hears the words "Extension Service," the result is the same.

"I still see 4-H and farmers. Those are still definitely the broad strokes that are Extension Service work that come at first brush," he said.

Tesmer believes the Extension service will always be a "work in progress" and that its evolution into something semi-permanent will continue.

Spanish language brochures are being circulated by the Extension Service. Dairy milking and feeding schools are being taught in Spanish as more new immigrants take jobs in the state's dairy industry.

Tesmer believes the Extension Service's programs and services are not age-specific.

"There are things going on in Extension Service all the time that appeal to somebody out there," Tesmer said.

Land, Food and Environment

The list begins with "Best

Practices for Environmental Field Days" and goes on to include "Dairy Modernization, Food Safety for Food Service, Manure Management" and "Master Gardener Program."

From teaching children and teenagers about the environment to helping financially-strapped dairy farmers survive in the new millennium to protecting food and food handlers and finally that most basic element that makes all things grow and how to grow with or without it, this collection of resources and programs of the Extension Service is as far-ranging as any.

Add to the list programs on shoreland vegetation and landscaping, soybean aphids, waste water education, helping growers create a marketing plan, assisting forest-owners in managing woodlands and environmentally friendly home horticulture, it's not so much a question of whether there is something for everyone. Rather, it's about enriching a community by enriching the mind by teaching how nature must be enriched with intelligent use of our natural resources.

Carmen Thompson, wife and mother, has been working for the Extension Service in Mower County for eight years and before that, two more years in Travers County.

Thompson is a program assistant for the Master Gardening Program, home skills and 4-H.

"Education is the main purpose. That's what the Extension Service has always been about," Thompson said.

But Thompson questions the assertion that the Extension Service can be "all things to all people."

"That may have been true at some point in the past, when you could walk into the Extension Office and get an answer for any question you had, but it's not true any longer.

"Today, if we don't have that information for you, we know someone who does and we can connect you with that person."

Her first experience with the Extension Service was as a 4-H club member and it was a good first impression that led her to pursue a college education in the field of study and then a career.

Tony Mudra, the new 4-H program coordinator (Level II), also was introduced to the Extension Service as a young 4-Her.

Mudra has used the Extension Service as a livestock producer and grower and with is wife, Denise, he has watched his daughters and son use the Extension Service as 4-H club members.

Now, he preaches, what he once practiced: raising livestock and 4-H programming.

"I think the way we deliver our programs and services makes it better today than it was when I was a child," Mudra said. "There are more programs available, like the Quiz Bowl and Shooting Sports. We can open up 4-H to so many more urban youths today than we could years ago and we can do it with high technology and a Web site as well as anything else.

"Whatever it takes to enrich a person or a community, we can do it at the Extension Service."

Youth Development and Family Living

This may be the area that the Extension Service does its best work to enrich communities.

First and foremost, there are 4-H opportunities to shape a lifetime.

There are 4-H clubs, 4-H camps and 4-H count and state fair programs.

Nobody does youth developing and family living better than the 4-H arm of the Extension Service.

Community youth development reaches for more community enrichment through.

There are little-known, but high-impact programs such as Dollar Works, which is designed to teach the ABCs of economic literacy to newly employed individuals

and families, including participants in welfare reform programs.

Health, nutrition and wellness programs help individual consumers take a life-span approach to healthy lifestyles.

How far does this category go to enrich a community? Answer: Consider the "Making the Most of Out of School Time" and a hand full of targeted family programs.

There is Minnesota Best, Parents Forever, Positive Parenting and Rent Wise, all designed to strengthen families and individuals which translates to enriching communities on the most intimate level: one citizen in one community at a time.

The plethora of programs and services are not at all like the Extension Service Dan Vermilyea remembers when growing up in Minnesota.

But, Vermilyea likes what he sees happening; especially in the area of youth development and family living.

How do you spell "Vermilyea?" Some people think it's spelled "4 … H."

Vermilyea as well as his wife, Joyce, are among those adults, who believe there is no other program like the Extension Service's 4-H.

"Through all these changes in the Extension Service and through all the changes in agriculture, the numbers of 4-Hers have been fairly constant," Vermilyea said. "I think 4-H continues to be a very viable program by itself."

Vermilyea, who recently stepped down from a long commitment on the Mower County Extension Service committee, believes the Extension Service of 15 years ago was a kind of "one-stop shopping" venue for information and education.

A "general store run by generalists." Vermilyea said.

Today, he personally believes the Extension Service needs to offer more "precise information" to rural residents, because, he said, "agriculture is all about specialization."

Also Vermilyea said, today's rural residents -- farm families among others -- are "better educated" and therefore they're going to be more demanding.

"They have home computers, they can access Web sites, they subscribe to the latest magazines and journals and they want specific information," he said.

More evidence that the Extension Service is moving in the right direction by offering specialists with a focus on specific areas comes from Ann Walter.

Walter, who holds a master's degree, came to Mower County 10 years ago after a five-year stint in Worth County, Iowa, with the Extension Service there.

Formerly an Extension Educator, today Walter is a regional Extension educator in community/youth development.

She is one of two such educators serving a 15 county area. Walter has been assigned duties in eight of those counties.

"Community/youth development helps communities create interactive programs around youth and engage youth and adults in a partnership," Walter said. "And to do this, we're actually using the 4-H model."

One aspect of the efforts going on in Minnesota towns and villages is to "foster positive role models" among the shop-keepers, school custodians, bus drivers and other "average Joes and Jills" in a community who can impact young people's lives within that town or village.

According to Walter, the Extension Service's Minnesota Best and Making the Most of Out of School Time are focused on accomplishing those goals.

"4-H is a great program, but it's once a month and we need other programs who can do the things we want them to do five days a week or more," she said.

But Walter disputes the "all things to all people" boast. "We can't be all things to all people anymore, but we can be more effective and we can do that by referring people to other programs and other sources.

"That's what the Extension Service has always done best: matching needs to a resource. Now, we can do a better job of focusing our programs and resources where they are needed the most. That should allow the Extension Service to do better quality programming. It may be less, but its more focused than ever before on where it is needed," she said.

The new Extension Service uses technology to get more from less. Focusing. Strategizing. Networking. Interfacing and a hundred other technocrat-ese euphemisms for becoming "leaner and meaner" in a changing world.

All this and they still test pressure cookers at canning time.

Just ask.

Lee Bonorden can be contacted at 434-2232 or by e-mail at