I’d been considering writing about the closing of some extension offices and programs. Fortunately for all of us, our friend John Friel already has, in his inimitable and always flawless style.
Wine and Roses
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: What are the ten scariest words a grower ever hears? “Hi, I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”
That witticism is attributed to Ronald Reagan, but probably predates him. As orators go, he was the Great Recycler. But whatever you thought of his politics, you had to admire his delivery. And if you want to get technical, he said “farmers,” not “growers.” Picky, picky.
The quip survives because well-meaning government efforts sometimes run afoul of the law of unintended consequences. Rosa multiflora, a.k.a. rambler rose, was hailed as wildlife cover; it’s so dense, it was planted as living fences around pastures and prisons, and was even used as a highway crash barrier. Its rampant growth now makes it a scourge of farms and nature preserves.
Kudzu (Pueraria montana), the vine that ate the South, almost goes without saying in this discussion. Growing it for livestock feed and erosion control was not only encouraged, it was actually subsidized at $8 per acre.
It’s not wise to pretend such shenanigans are safely in the past. Current policies encourage or at least tolerate overfertilizing and eroding millions of Midwestern acres, creating a dead zone bigger than Massachusetts in the Gulf of Mexico. But that’s too big a rant for this space.
It’s also not fair to pretend that government efforts can only end badly. The dadburned gummint often gets it right, too. Example: Cooperative Extension.
Extension agents may bridle at the idea that they’re “from the government.” Penn State Extension viticulturist Mark Chien told me, “I’m an educator.” True, Extension is an arm of the Land Grant Universities. But those universities are creations of the Federal Government, administered by the states, reliant on tax revenue, and thus imperiled everywhere by the forces buffeting our economy: Massive deficits, shriveled investment returns, ballooning pension and insurance costs—the dead zones in state budgets.
Here in Pennsylvania, our new governor’s rookie budget proposed slashing $1 billion—yes, that’s a B—from education. Agents in many states don’t know if they’ll have jobs next year.
Chien’s hands-on growing experience and academic background make him the go-to guy if you’re growing wine grapes here, as more folks than I realized are doing. When he came to Pennsylvania in 1999 after 26 years growing and managing at wineries in New York and Oregon, we had 42 vineyards. Thanks in part to his hard work, expertise and encouragement, there are now more than 150. We’re no Oregon, let alone California, but don’t write us off.
One winemaker told me Mark has been “instrumental in helping the industry leap forward. Any industry would be thrilled to have such a champion.” I’m willing to bet that someone from any industry within our allied industries has a similar story about their Extension agent.
The benefits of Extension, and the danger of de-funding it, are by no means limited to oenology or ornamentals. Anyone who wrests a living from living things stands to lose valuable assets as legislators swing the budget axe. From beef to bees, poultry to perennials, Extension has our backs. Even garden writers rely on Extension, for help with stories—or for whole stories.
For a cynic, I’m pretty optimistic even when the voice of my main literary hero, Mark Twain, whispers in my ear. I’m not the cynic or the writer he was; few can aspire to such soaring heights of glittering, hilarious prose, or to such black depths of bitter irony. So I prefer to think he was exaggerating for effect when he said, “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session.” But I’ll acknowledge that livelihoods, and the health of whole industries, are vulnerable. Ordinarily, I am to politics what an agnostic is to religion. I keep hoping the doomsayers are wrong. If the fire and brimstone types are right, you’re not reading this column: The world ended May 21. Still here? Whew!
Take a minute to tell your state representative that cutting funding to Extension is lopping off the wrong branch—the one we’re standing on.
First printed in the June 2011 issue of GreenProfit magazine. Reprinted with permission.