When state legislators asked the 35 public universities to prepare for more than an additional $300 million in cuts, they were not expecting those cuts to be inimical to some of their constituents’ most beloved programs, such as 4-H.
Eliminating 4-H and closing half of the Cooperative Extension Service offices in the state, which administers the county’s 4-H programs, represents almost 20 percent of the $58 million worth of cuts proposed by the University of Georgia to make up their share.
Upon this announcement, public outcries began to sprout all over the state, along with a few Facebook groups.
“I know when they proposed the cut, on Facebook there were at least 50 of my friends (whose) profile (pictures) were of Georgia 4-H — a clover … I probably got a least 50 texts that one day just about: ‘These representatives, you need to message them,’” said Amanda Starling, a senior 4-H’er and a representative on the 4-H District Board of Directors for southeast Georgia.
Stimulating Georgia’s youth
Starling, 17, is one of approximately 2,000 youth in Effingham and 156,000 active 4-H members in Georgia. She is in 11th grade, making this her eighth year of 4-H. She got involved when her mother chaperoned trips to Rock Eagle for her older sister.
Starling has a rare eye disorder called coloboma, which is essentially a cleft pupil. She said she was quiet when she was young because kids would tease her.
“I guess I made my first really good friends in 4-H, and they’re still all my friends,” she said.
She is now highly involved in theatre and gives speeches on a regular basis for contests and about her disorder. But 4-H does more than get shy children out of their shells. Starling said that she and other 4-H members depend on the program for college scholarships from programs like Project Achievement, which awarded $31,000 in scholarships last year.
“I think it helps stimulate the poverty level for these kids that wouldn’t be able to (go to college). So it gives them a chance to say, ‘I can go to this college and get a degree even though my parents didn’t,’” Starling said.
Measurable added value
Starling said that 95 percent of 4-H members graduate college. And Cooperative Extension and 4-H are stimulating more than youth in the Peach State.
Bill Tyson, the Cooperative Extension Service county coordinator in Effingham, has worked for the program16 years. He said that implementing these cuts would be devastating locally and statewide.
“If the resources were diminished to the folks here in the county, it would not only have a local impact but also an economical impact,” he said. “We offer programs that are educational, like folks that have businesses, like a farm would be, we offer information to make the best management decisions that they can, which in turn impacts the bottom line in the state.”
The local Extension office took 18 percent budget cuts in 2009, and Tyson said that if these new cuts were enacted, then more than half of their budget would be extracted.
Tyson said he meets with the farmers throughout the year to discuss data on commodities and shows them how to utilize new agricultural developments. Much of the data he uses from around the state is obtained from facilities such as the Vidalia Onion and Vegetable Research Center and the Bamboo Farm and Coastal Gardens in Savannah, both of which are on the budget cut hit list.
Agriculture and agribusiness are the largest industry in Georgia, making up $57 billion of the state’s $350 billion economic output.
“The programs that extension offers bring measurable added value to Georgia’s economy and to the quality of life by providing a stronger, more competitive agriculture industry, needed education for families, proven youth development programs that help Georgia’s youth succeed in life,” said Tyson.
Under the Gold Dome
Public objections to the 4-H/Cooperative Extension threat have swept the state. Starling said that the day after they saw 4-H at risk, the 4-H State Board of Directors lobbied at the Capitol to save the program. On the 4-H Web site, hundreds of 4-H members and alumni have shared their stories about 4-H’s impact on their lives. Starling was one of the entries, along with a few other Effingham 4-H’ers and even a post from former governor Roy Barnes.
Starling said that she and her friends and their parents began calling their state representatives and senators pleading for help and telling them how much this would hurt their lives.
“Some of them were really accepting and there were some that were just like, ‘we need the money,’” said Starling.
UGA President Michael Adams said he could not assure that he could completely preserve the program.
“I’m all for 4-H, but sooner or later you have to deal with realities. There are no cuts left that we want to make. We are down to very difficult decisions,” Adams told the Statesboro Herald.
But state Sen. Jack Hill (R-Reidsville), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and Effingham’s state senator, called the actions a “power play” to dispute the proposed cuts.
“4-H members, farmers and their families can rest assured there will continue to be a 4-H and Cooperative Extension Service,” he said. The situation, Hill added, “has spun out of control.”
Starling said she thinks that if they reduced the number of extension agents and placed a larger jurisdiction in the hands of fewer people that 4-H could still work.
“Instead of having one or two extension agents in each county, even though they’re two miles apart, I think it will be better if we had maybe three for a certain area,” she said, “and have, maybe for a whole district, eight agents instead of 20, which we have now. Because I think you still have a relationship with them.”