I admit to being slightly irked when I initially thought about writing this column. It has been about a year since Jeff Seiler retired as the director of the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service for Swain and Jackson counties, and more than three months since a panel interviewed applicants to replace him.
I know this because the extension service was unwise enough to let me serve on that panel.
Lest anyone think less of these state employees for including a news reporter in such an important decision (or on any decision, for that matter), let me offer in their defense the following explanation. This all took place while I was earning my keep as a full-time farmer’s market gardener, not as a newspaperwoman. Thus, in the eyes of the state’s finest, my disreputable and seedy journalistic self was cloaked in robes of agrarian trustworthiness and dirt-under-the-fingernails wisdom.
Whatever. Three months is too long a stretch between candidate interviews and the state actually selecting a director.
The situation is unfair to the extension staff in Swain and Jackson. It is unfair to the farmers and hobbyist gardeners who rely on their expertise. It is probably most unfair, however, to Heather Gordon, the 4-H agent who has so ably served as interim director.
Not that I asked Gordon what she thought, because she is not, in my experience, given to unseemly and employment-endangering bursts of opinion. I knew she would simply give me a smile and proffer a publicly acceptable response, something along the lines of “I’m happy to serve in any capacity.” For all I know, Gordon actually might enjoy bossing around people she’ll have to work alongside again soon, simply as a colleague.
Sure doesn’t sound like much fun to me.
Even given my rightful impatience with the delay, however, I’m forced to acknowledge that filling this particular job poses unusual difficulties. In this case, the extension service’s pick must serve a multitude of masters. The director will work with two county managers and two sets of county commissioners. Additionally, they will oversee a staff stretched thin by service to residents living in two counties. Ever driven from Little Canada to Needmore in a day? How about from Balsam to Big Cove? Swain and Jackson combined represent a huge chunk of land.
Dan Smith, director of the extension service’s West District — that’s the state’s 17 westernmost counties and the Cherokee Indian Reservation — told me state budget woes for a time delayed almost all extension hiring. That’s not the case now. In Macon County, longtime horticulturist Alan Durden was recently tapped to fill that county’s top extension position. Durden, however, was a non-controversial hire, one virtually guaranteed to please Macon farmers and politicians alike.
Smith would only say when lightly pressed (this isn’t exactly Watergate I’m investigating, after all, and Smith seems a nice-enough guy) that he believes the state will fill the position soon, he knows the hire is a priority and everyone involved is eager to see things resolved.
It’s probably important to note why this issue merits attention.
There aren’t many farmers left in Swain and Jackson counties, and not much farmland, either. All the groceries we can consume are available at supermarkets. The state and the nation have huge economic problems, and one could argue the extension service simply isn’t a priority.
I think that’s shortsighted. For one thing, a nation’s ability to produce food is vital to national security. Michael Pollan, writing in The New York Times Magazine, made the case succinctly: “When a nation loses the ability to substantially feed itself, it is not only at the mercy of global commodity markets but of other governments as well.”
The extension service was formed, and continues to serve, as a vital link between farmers and research. Without extension agents, what happens in the laboratory probably wouldn’t trickle down to those really needing the information — the farmers growing our food. Additionally, the best agents help set local food agendas in the communities they serve.
A few years ago, two agents — Sarah McClellan-Welch, who is on the reservation, and Christine Bredenkamp, the horticulturist for Swain and Jackson counties — formed a bee club in response to the honeybee decline and people’s interest in their plight. These same agents were instrumental in starting farmers markets in Cherokee, Sylva and Bryson City. Renee Cassidy, another extension employee who has since left the agency, helped set up a food-voucher program at the Swain County Farmers Market.
These folks deserve our backing and support. The agents in Swain and Jackson counties also deserve a leader who will help them help us — and the sooner that happens, the better.