No two days are the same for Skip Glidewell, Mississippi State University (MSU) Extension Agent for Prentiss County.
One day, Glidewell might advise an individual how to improve their grass; the next, he may be outdoors, investigating a pond; the day after that may find him fielding questions from landowners about how to improve their agricultural property.
Each office of the state-spanning MSU Extension Service serves as a resource for the agriculture producers in their coverage areas, but that’s just a fraction of the work they do. MSU Extension agents and staff help with community development, promote family and consumer sciences, and host local 4-H programs.
“We are the education arm of the research portion of Mississippi State University,” said Marie Rogers, the MSU Extension Agent for Itawamba County. “So the research they do, we as extension service as a whole go out into the community and give people that information.”
‘One stop shop for a lot of things’
So, what exactly do Extension Services do?
Frankly, a bit of everything.
MSU Extension Service programs vary by county. Some have active forestry, cattlemen, or North Mississippi Beekeepers associations. In the counties with county fairs, MSU Extension Service offices host exhibits. Extension Services even host arts and crafts events through the Mississippi Homemaker Volunteers program.
Rogers has been an extension agent for 13 years. Since then, her role has evolved to include everything from economic development and agriculture/natural resources to the domestic. One day, she might be working with a forestry expert looking at timber and answering livestock questions, and the next, she may be instructing a gardener on proper canning techniques or telling someone how to remove a stubborn stain.
“If you’ve got a home, or land, or kids, we’re the place,” Rogers said. “We provide research-based answers to the public.”
Some of Itawamba’s staples include its yarn arts group and quilting ladies, and health programs. They cover heart-health awareness, breast and colon cancer, and recently hosted a blood drive. Their 4-H club has 300 members on paper, but with COVID-19, there are probably 50 active youth.
In Clay County, extension agents BJ McClenton and Natalie Ray juggle an array of responsibilities. McClenton focuses on the agricultural side, while Ray oversees Family Consumer Sciences. Their biggest service is providing outreach and education in the areas of agriculture, rural community development, 4-H, Family Consumer Sciences and looking at subgroups such as horticulture, forestry, foraging, and weed identification and pesticide application. They have family consumer activities such as food safety, cooking, nutrition and emergency preparedness.
“It’s kind of a one stop shop for a lot of things,” McClenton said.
The two split 4-H duties, with McClenton preparing 4-H members for horse and livestock shows and the safety program while Ray focuses on the nonagricultural competition programs. Their 4-H program, which has roughly 90 kids enrolled, recently added introductory STEM programs to teach students to see science applied outside of school.
“It gives them another way to look at a career they hadn’t even thought about and have an opportunity to think outside the box with some of those activities,” Ray said.
Since the start of the pandemic, Glidewell has learned how to reach the community he covers in new ways.
“It didn’t shut us down,” Glidewell said. “It forced us to think outside the box as far as being innovative with new ways of reaching our clientele.”
With face-to-face meetings out, Glidewell turned to Zoom meetings, posting educational videos, emailing and mailing information to keep the people they serve informed.
Even without in-person meetings, the pandemic did little to slow down Glidewell’s office.
“It limited and impacted our physical and face-to-face contact, but it showed how relevant and important our agency … still is,” he said.
As an unintended consequence of early panic buying and people’s worries about food shortages, some MSU Extension agents received more questions around gardening.
“Everybody started wanting to garden, grow fruits, grow vegetables, and then process their own beef or animals. Everybody kind of became a little bit of a homesteader,” McClenton said.
People who hadn’t gardened in years were suddenly calling with questions about their vegetables or asking about other skills they’d either forgotten or never previously needed to know.
Throughout the pandemic, Extension agents in Tishomingo County have tried to remain visible however they can. They’ve held food tastings, distributed gardening kits with information and made bags for local food pantries.
It’s a simple fact: They can’t help people who don’t know they’re there.
“One of the things about getting out in the community is just making people aware of the programs we offer and the services we provide,” said Extension Agent Emily Vestal, who handles the office’s family and consumer sciences and 4-H programs. “There are so many people who still don’t know what Extension is and what we do,” said
Extension program assistant Diane Ham, who works on nutrition, tries to provide advice through classes, education and programs such as Today’s Mom, an online program that helps new moms or those planning for children.
“We love being out in the community and helping our community thrive,” Ham said. “We’re not doing very well in Mississippi as far as with nutrition needs, and we love to help.”
While some things didn’t translate virtually, local Extension Services adjusted in other ways. For example, Family Consumer Science agents throughout Northeast Mississippi collaborated during the pandemic to organize a weekly video series geared towards young adults on topics like housekeeping, financial awareness and UV safety.
During the pandemic, Ray has seen their county newsletter subscriptions nearly triple.
“We’re always open”
The Tishomingo extension office is currently preparing to host more programming, including a Sept. 29 workshop on basic computer skills. They recently held a “Gray for a Day program,” in which young participants learned — through simulation — what it is like to age. They’re even planning for their October county fair.
It’s a slow return to normal; not that they’ve ever stopped doing what they do.
“We’re available if you need us,” Ham said. “We will be glad to answer your calls, your questions on anything that you have.”
In Itawamba County, Rogers hopes to add more events once the area’s COVID-19 case count decreases. This year she plans to host a modified breast cancer event in house if circumstances allow. For their annual Senior Citizens Day program, which normally attracts hundreds of attendees, they offered a drive-thru where people could pick up goody bags and sack meals.
Pandemic or no pandemic, Extension agents have work to do.
“We’re always open,” Rogers said. “Farming never stopped. Our area agronomists, they were working constantly during the pandemic as well . . . we were always ready to serve and help during the pandemic. We just had to find a different way to go about it.”