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Military assistance a growing role for Extension

By Larry Dreiling

The U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan is shrinking and families are awaiting their loved ones' safe return at military bases across the nation.

Meanwhile, personnel at land-grant universities in five states--Kansas, Alabama, Maryland, Virginia, and Washington--have developed programs to help military families with special programs just for them.

That's what brought Undersecretary of Agriculture for Research, Education and Economics Catherine Woteki, Ph.D., to Fort Riley, Kan., recently. Kansas State University, located in Manhattan, is just a few miles from the fort and Woteki recently visited the sprawling military installation while on a tour of K-State's research facilities.

The history of the Extension/military partnership goes back to 1995 with the 4-H/Army Youth Development Project. Specialists and youth development professionals from land-grant universities shared responsibilities for developing the educational programs. These programs, now in all branches of the military services, are now offered at bases in 34 states.

For youth at Kansas' three military bases, the Kansas Military/4-H Club Partnership helps active clubs in the counties where the bases are located with leader training to help military kids feel a sense of belonging and help them learn and grow.

Last year in Kansas, more than 700 youth were involved in 4-H military programs. In Riley and Geary Counties surrounding Fort Riley, 282 kids were involved in 4-H. Leavenworth County hosted 354 participating kids from Fort Leavenworth while 80 youth from McConnell Air Force Base were involved in Sedgwick County 4-H activities.

Even though Fort Riley's local 4-H programs are off garrison, there remains a strong military presence in them. Woteki hopes many of the youth involved in 4-H use their involvement as a springboard toward jobs in the scientific community.

"I talk to a lot of students," Woteki said, "and I always try to encourage them to think about careers in science because there are good jobs, no matter what field of science you pursue."

Woteki said her staff currently is working on a study to determine what drives high school students to choose and stay in science-related fields when they go to college.

"We are doing an analysis of students who go into agriculture-related disciplines, such as food science and human nutrition," Woteki said. "We want to know why we are losing students and what we can do to keep them."

Recent USDA studies show that 4-H students are more likely to go to two- or four-year colleges, and are more likely to choose a science major.

Said Woteki: "It's clear that 4-H is an opportunity to get kids interested in science."

Extension-based family assistance programs at military posts are poised to assist where and as requested. At Fort Riley, Extension programs in four essential life skills have been identified by the fort's Garrison Command as necessary in difficult times of deployment: family life, child development, family resource management, and nutrition and health.

Since fall 2009, an Extension office has been housed at Fort Riley with full-time agents on garrison to make connections and introduce a variety of educational programs to Fort Riley families. While much of the fort is officially listed in Geary County, Kan., the fort's complement of more than 18,000 soldiers (and their families) means the fort is, in essence, one of the state's larger cities and ripe for a Extension facility all its own.

"The partnership between Extension and the military is a good one," said Woteki--who was born at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., while her father was stationed at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College--as she visited an Extension family resources "Cut The Clutter" class at the fort's community services building.

"This is just like so many classes available to Americans all across the country," Woteki said. "What's unique about this partnership is that is such practical information, stuff people can use every day with a firm basis in research.

"My job as USDA's chief scientist helps to inform the family life, nutrition, and other research-based programs that are available through this Extension partnership. It's a partnership to be proud to be a part of."

One area of the fort Woteki toured was a community garden, operated by Extension but maintained by families on garrison. Families signed up for one of 60, 20-by-20 foot garden patches on a first-come, first-served basis.

"They can grow anything they want, so long as it's legal," said Susan Schoneweis, a Extension food and nutrition specialist and registered dietitian, who also teaches classes such as choosing proper foods at the commissary, basic food preparation, food storage techniques, and demonstrating how to use a food thermometer to ensure meat and poultry are cooked properly.

"One participant in the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program commented that this was the best nutrition class she had taken," Schoneweis said.

During her visit to Fort Riley, Woteki spoke with reporters on several subjects, including her tour of the site for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility to be located at K-State.

"It's going to be a safe facility, Woteki said. "Both (the Agricultural Research Service and Animal and Plant Health and Inspection Service) are going to be conducting research at the facility like they do at Plum Island. These scientists are participating with the team at the Department of Homeland Security, making it clear to them what all our specifications are for the safe operation of the facility. We're paying attention."

Like most high-ranking USDA officials, Woteki is concerned with the outcome of the current budget discussions as well as the upcoming debate over the next farm bill. Woteki sees that much of the farm bill debate will be budget driven.

"In the 2011 continuing resolution to the budget, research took about an 11 percent hit from the year before. For fiscal year 2012, which starts the first of October, we know the House resolution has a cut of another 15 percent. We don't know what will happen in the Senate.

"We don't know what the allocation will be until we know what happens in the Senate. We are doing different scenario planning for what could be different levels of appropriations to the research budget. It's what a good manager does. What's more important to look at what areas are in most need of investment.

"We need to be looking at future needs in agriculture and how in a time when all federal agencies are going to be asked to do some budget tightening what are our priorities and how to make sure were properly addressing them to have the right investments for the future."

That includes continued help in public funding of wheat variety research.

"We have this 150-year old partnership between the land-grant universities and the states in support of public research," Woteki said. "The federal investment leverages matches from the states to support the experiment stations at Kansas State that provide the infrastructure for long term research as well as funding for things like the germplasm collections, which is important for wheat breeders since they need access to those collections."

Woteki sees her niche in research at USDA as a vital part of future spending.

"When you consider the issue of food security, particularly in years like this in places like right here in Kansas, with drought in one part and flooding in another, is exactly the kind of situation where research is so important. When you think about it, it's particularly important while at a place like Fort Riley, where food security is also an issue of national security," Woteki said.

Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117, or by email at ldreiling@aol.com.

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