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Extension, experiment station facing budget trouble

 February 18, 2005

By HOLLY OWENS Herald and News

A group of more than 20 men gathered around a phone at the Klamath Extension Service office Thursday morning hoping for an answer to a staffing problem that faces the master gardener program in Klamath Falls.

Will Extension agent Kerry Locke, who manages the gardener program, be replaced when he retires in June 2006?

The answer from the other end of the line was, "no answer yet."

The group at the meeting, comprised of local extension agents, farmers and master gardeners, was waiting for an answer from Charlie Boyer, Russ Karow and Bill Braunworth with the Oregon State University Extension Service in Corvallis.

Statewide budget problems, complicated by federal budget changes, leave the details of future of staffing at the Extension and the Klamath Experiment Station in doubt. Out of four Extension agents in Klamath Falls, three are in line to retire by the end of 2006.

"It's very difficult for us to know when we'll be able to fill these positions," Boyer said.

Grain farmer Sam Henzel said a potential misconception of the master gardener program is that master gardeners are looked at as not being a part of commercial gardening, when in fact it supports the viability of nursery product growers.

"Be leery about considering them less than an integral part of the industry," Henzel said.

Answers about staffing may not come until the fall when the state budget is finalized. And Hatch funds - monies distributed by the federal government to fund agricultural experiment stations - could also figure into the staffing equation if they are cut. Hatch funds provide 15 to 20 percent of the experiment station's funding, said Ken Rykbost, supervisor of the Klamath Experiment Station.

The county's share of funding for Extension shouldn't change much, said County Commissioner Bill Brown.

"We've had some good building, but also some setbacks. We're looking at being right at holding the line," Brown said.

In the meantime, OSU is developing staffing priorities to utilize the resources it has by developing an analysis of budget cuts for its network of experiment stations and the Extension Service, Boyer said.

A handful of ideas for solutions to the funding problem were offered: lobbying state and federal lawmakers, finding more sources of money and combining the sites for the Extension Service and the experiment station in Klamath Falls.

The Oregon Wheat Growers League has a trip to Washington, D.C. planned for March, said Karl Scronce, past president of the league, adding that all the grower groups should be encouraged to lobby for Extension and ag stations.

"Ask legislators to come to bat for us. County commissioners should use what leverage they have statewide," Rykbost said.

Brown said the commissioners could consider putting together a resolution encouraging support of Extension.

"I'd be glad to carry that and get it up to our representatives," Brown said. "A lot of programs will be affected by losing one, maybe two positions. This will have a big effect on our community."

Locke, who serves as the county agent for row crops, gardening and horticulture, pointed out training Extension has provided for garden center employees with retailers such as Home Depot and Wal-Mart, adding the agency could seek reimbursement for those services.

Potential funding from the Natural Resource Conservation Service and Environmental Quality Incentives Program were also considered.

Combining the sites of the Extension Service and experiment station was another idea offered to save money.

"In the ideal world we'd have this facility out at the farm," said Locke, noting there are houses at the experiment station on Washburn Way that could be converted into office space.

Looking at the solutions offered to the group, Henzel offered his opinion.

"We have to accept the responsibility that there won't be funding for the programs we hold dear to our hearts," Henzel said.

Henzel noted that lobbying could be done, but funding would still be scarce.

"It means stepping up and paying for it by ourselves."






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