When I tell people to contact the Lee County Extension office for information, I sometimes get the question, "What and where is extension?"
Our extension office is on Palm Beach Boulevard in Fort Myers, and it is an extension of the University of Florida. They disseminate information about family and consumers' physical health needs, along with programs that provide needed services; agriculture and landscape needs of home owners and landscapers, providing the tests for their licensing, as well as farms, farmers and growers needs; marine needs for testing water and helping our estuaries; and 4-H youth development. All agents are off campus faculty, highly trained professionals of the Land Grant University, the University of Florida, which leads to the question, "What is a land grant university."
A land grant college or university is an institute designated by each state's legislature or Congress to receive the benefits of the Morrill Act of 1862 and 1890, who were to teach agriculture, engineering, science and classical studies for members of the working classes, enabling them to obtain a practical liberal education. The Morrill Act (Land-Grant Act) signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, gave each state a grant of federal land within its borders for the establishment of a public institution to fulfill the act's provisions. At that time, 6.3 million acres of land, 30,000 acres per member of the Congress were granted, to create at least one public university per state.
It was war time when this was enacted, so it excluded states that were rebelling against the federal government. After the war, it was amended to include the Southern states, and a second Morrill Act was passed in 1890, granting money rather than land, to force states that excluded African-Americans from an education, to build land grant universities for them. Florida has two land grant universities, the University of Florida and FAMU. The act authorizes direct payment of federal grant funds based on a formula of small farmers there. Each state must match a major portion of these funds.
Originally, Southwest Florida was widely known as an agriculture region, but, in between 1997 and 2007, Lee County went from having 50,833 agriculture acres to 32,175, according to the 2002 Census of Agriculture. We still have great agriculture needs for homes and small farms, but the diversity that the extension has encompassed to meet the needs of our urban citizens, is phenomenal. They have changed with the times and needs, adding immensely to our quality of life.
Our county is undergoing a budget crisis. Officials are searching for ways to trim our costs. The Lee County Commission met last Monday to discuss the ways and means of reducing costs. As I understand it, there are five budget scenarios with three of these scenarios totally eliminating or significantly reducing the extension budget.
I have 23 years of master gardening. My father was an extension agent in Michigan and Ohio, and then was with the Agriculture Department of Purdue University. I grew up in the wonderful atmosphere of extension offices. He told me that the USDA on the license plate of his car stood for Us Darling Agents. I appreciate the existence of the extension. Our county will be the only county in Florida without an extension office!
I love both Arbor Days (national and state), with planting trees and their hope for the future, that started in the schools, because as President Teddy Roosevelt stated, it helped make our youth, "Stewards of the land." I was in 4-H as a young girl and have a great-grandson that is in 4-H now. He has two pins for the pigs he raised the last two years and a cattle pin for the 2,000-pound steer he raised this year, along with Judging and Visual Arts pins for this year. I know that nothing prepares our youth for a greater future better than 4-H.
Lee County Extension is a great investment; the $750,000 investment returns $4.7 million. Master Gardeners volunteer 8,735 hours, which equals five full-time employees valued at $162,995; 4-H volunteers contribute 15,895 hours, valued at 296,600, equaling nine full-time employees, with more than 10,000 contacts (office visits, phone calls, field visits, emails) receiving free diagnostic services (pest management, plant and weed identifications) valued at $400,000.
If you have any questions or want to see the facilities, please stop by 3406 Palm Beach Blvd., Fort Myers. The desk is open 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, or call 533-7504. Get your questions answered and pick up pertinent bulletins. See the beautiful polydamus or gold rim butterflies fluttering all around the entrance. They are just now hatching out off the pipevines. Visit the butterfly garden, the herb garden, grapes and other gardens. We will be co-sponsoring the Taste of Lee tropical fruit festival 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday, June 29, with the Caloosa Rare Fruit Exchange, downtown Fort Myers at the First Baptist Church. Come and taste what the local farmers and your neighbors are growing. I hope this helps you better understand what we may be losing.
Final budget decisions will be made at Lee County Commissioners' meetings on Sept. 4 and 18. I hate to imagine that all this will be missing from our lives. My resources will evaporate. No Master Gardeners, no 4-H, no health and family services, no fascinating and inexpensive courses, no more butterfly and herb conferences, no Florida Yards and Neighborhoods with their classes and rain barrels, no water quality checks. But I can still write, email or call the commissioners, then hug my tree to thank it for my oxygen and eliminating my carbon dioxide!
Once we lose a benefit, it is very difficult to restore it.
Joyce Comingore is a Master Gardener; Lee County/ Fort Myers Garden Council and District IX Arbor Day Chairman; hibiscus enthusiast; and member of the Garden Club of Cape Coral.