Inside the garage I find Mary Watson surrounded by groupings of fresh young seedling trees bundled and taped, with names written out in black magic marker. I’m here to pick up my nanking cherry, plum, chokecherry and golden current seedlings, sets of two that I purchased for the shockingly low price of $1 apiece. That’s a total of $8 and change for something that would cost many times that amount at a garden center. Of course, they’re bare- root trees, which means they’ll require a little extra care to successfully grow.
Watson, who is the administrative secretary for San Miguel and West Montrose Counties
Colorado State University Extension, hands me the young seedlings I ordered, along with a couple of State Forest Service handouts that contain planting directions for the trees, which are grown at CSU’s nursery in Ft. Collins. She suggests I remove the trees from their bags when I get home, but cautions me not to soak them directly in water, because the roots will drown. “They need air,” she says. “Many people have success by just planting them in five-gallon buckets until they’re well- established,” as opposed to planting them straight in the ground.
Along with corresponding workshops, the extension’s Seedling Tree Program allows landowners with two acres or more to purchase trees and shrubs to create wind barriers, fight erosion, promote wildlife habitat and beautify their properties. Normally sold in multiples of 30 or 50, this year the Norwood Extension decided to break up some bundles to make smaller numbers available to landowners. It’s an experiment that worked – they sold out of all the trees – “but it was a lot of work,” says Watson, who has been with the Norwood Extension for 27 years.
“When I started this job, my daughter was only 7 months old. Now she’s 28!”
Watson has just learned today that the county is cutting the program’s budget, “again,” and to make matters worse, 4-H Youth Development and Family/Consumer Science Agent Jack Krebs is leaving. “The county isn’t planning on replacing him,” she says grimly. That leaves two people, Watson and Yvette Henson, County Extension Director and Horticulture, Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent, to manage the office’s multiple programs, primarily funded by county, state and federal governments.
The national Cooperative Extension System grew out of the Morrill Act, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, providing 10,000 acres of federal land to each state in order to establish educational universities, or land-grant colleges. Recognizing the need to educate farmers and homemakers, the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 established federal funding to create cooperative extensions in virtually every county of every state, served by agents from the land-grant universities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture partners with the extensions to “help farmers grow crops, homeowners plan and maintain their homes, and children learn skills to become tomorrow’s leaders,” according to their website.
As Colorado’s land-grant university, CSU also serves as the state’s extension, which is a statewide network of faculty and staff providing research-based educational programs to local communities through 57 county extension offices. Based in Norwood’s Lone Cone Building, the San Miguel and West Montrose Counties-CSU Extension provides a variety of programs and educational activities, including gardening and horticulture workshops; seedling tree programs; livestock and agricultural information; noxious weed/vegetation management and cost share programs; soil and water testing kits; insect and plant disease diagnosis; crop production expertise; 4-H and youth development programs; family and consumer science classes; canning and food preservation classes; and nutrition planning directed at youth and seniors.
“We sort of feel like we’re one of the best-kept secrets,” says Henson, now in her fifth year as extension director in Norwood. “Colorado is one of the worst states as far as how they fund higher education,” she explains, emphasizing the importance of extension programs here, which serve an area stretching east to Telluride and west as far as Paradox.
“Perhaps the most well-known and long-running program we do is 4-H,” for ages 5 to 19. “It’s not just livestock,” she says, but includes programs that emphasize science, engineering, technology and math, as well as leadership skills and even overseas travel opportunities. Participants can study animal and veterinary science, computers, rocketry, robotics, Geospatial Technology, and more. An environmental curriculum was recently added, including a wind power program.
The job of the extension is to constantly evaluate the needs of the community it serves. Aside from its well-established state programs – Colorado Master Gardeners, Native Plant Master and Farmers Teaching Farmers, among others – a recent regional survey conducted by Norwood’s extension identified an interest in local food production, says Henson. “We had an idea of where we should go and the survey confirmed that. It was very, very useful.”
As a result, several new workshops this summer will cater to the home food producer, including a High Tunnel/Hoop House workshop (May 8) and a Backyard Barnyard program focusing on raising chickens, fiber/milk animals, how to handle raw milk and cheese, etc.
“We could use some volunteer leaders for the gardening programs,” says Henson. “We’re trying to make better use of resources,” by working with agents in multiple counties.
To that end, Henson, acting as the mountain gardening agent for the region, will be teaching an organic food gardening workshop in Ridgway later this month. Similarly, agents from other counties will be brought into our region to provide programs in their areas of expertise, such as livestock management.
And if that wasn’t enough, the San Miguel and West Montrose Counties-CSU Extension provides support for Norwood’s Farm and Craft Market (“I love [the vendors],” says Henson; “they’re very near and dear to my heart”), and boasts two High and Dry Research/Demonstration Gardens (one at the Norwood Fairgrounds and one near Telluride Town Park) and a Plant Select Demonstration Garden (also at the fairgrounds). They provide a huge array of unique, affordable programs to serve the region, and during tough economic times, their programs are that much more valuable.
“Our major role is transformational education,” says CSU Extension Director and Associate Provost Deb Young. “Taking research-based information, making it useful to the public, and helping that public (a) realize the need for change, (b) evaluate their options, and finally (c) adopt new and better behaviors that improve their economic and social well-being.”
To find out more about the San Miguel/West Montrose Extension’s upcoming workshops and ongoing programs, visit www.coopext.colostate.edu/SanMiguel/index.shtml, or stop by the Norwood office at 1120 Summit St., across from the San Miguel County Fairgrounds.