TEACHING WITHOUT WALLS
Those working for Mississippi State Extension no longer ride on horseback from farm to farm sharing the latest scientific methods for crop production, yet today’s agents still have a lot in common with their predecessors who started the organization more than 100 years ago.
That has not changed much, observed Alex Deason, who has served as an Extension agent in Sunflower County for three years.
“Our mission is to extend knowledge and change lives, but it’s a balancing act,” Deason explained. “Clients are receptive to Extension at varying levels, and there are different needs in different areas of the state. That’s why it’s so important to understand that Extension is a neighborhood voice. We build relationships in our area.”
Extension operates offices in all 82 Mississippi counties. Most offices have at least two agents. One is typically responsible for agriculture and natural resources programming, while the other focuses on family and consumer sciences. Both are responsible for working with 4-H Youth Development and community and economic development activities.
But what does an Extension agent actually do?
Ask any agent that question, and the answer is usually a laugh.
A WELL-CONNECTED NEIGHBOR WITH A PLAN
Deason may start the day with a to-do list but then the phone starts ringing, clients drop by the office and text messages start rolling in.
“Every generation is different, so part of my job as an Extension agent is figuring out the best ways to communicate with people. Ultimately, I want to change not just their level of knowledge, but their behavior,” Deason said. “We have to find out what they want to learn, and then we put it into a format that best helps them to learn.”
With clients ranging from age 5 to 85, Deason understands everyone has different expectations, so he plans programs and communication methods accordingly, and doesn’t rely on a traditional workshop for every audience.
For example, Deason visits an 85-year-old client in person each year to discuss his pastures.
“He wants a one-on-one visit at his farm. My parents’ generation wants a simple phone call. My generation, the Google generation, we have to help them get the correct information,” Deason explained. “People can look online, but not all of the information is reliable. Extension provides science-based information people can trust.”
“Every generation is different, so part of my job as an Extension agent is figuring out the best ways to communicate with people. Ultimately, I want to change not just their level of knowledge, but their behavior. We have to find out what they want to learn, and then we put it into a format that best helps them to learn.” ~ Alex Deason
Trust has always been a key factor in Extension’s success, and Deason understands the significance of this responsibility.
“Irrigation is a significant focus right now, and we emphasize computerized hole selection for irrigation pipe planning,” Deason said. “But some of our clients have never used a computer. They have to trust me and feel comfortable learning the technology because they can’t just turn over a portion of their business to someone they don’t trust.”
If Deason doesn’t know the answer to a client’s question, he has a network of colleagues across the state he can rely on to provide the needed information. They may share the same job title, but even within agriculture and natural resources, every agent has a different area of expertise.
“It could be agronomy, plant and soil science, animal science, forestry or horticulture,” Deason said. “That’s one of the best aspects of Extension–we are all different and we all know each other. I can say I have 81 counterparts, and I can call each of them and they have something unique to bring to the table.”
A HELPING HAND IN THE COMMUNITY
Tawnya Holliman, a 20-year veteran Extension agent, gained appreciation for the state’s diverse needs through her work in Bolivar, Marion and Forrest counties.
“In a smaller county, your work as an agent is more widely known because you have fewer people and they know you are the beginning and the end of help in that rural county,” she said. “You do a lot of work that falls under community resource development because you are advocating for resources the county doesn’t have. In a larger county, you have to find your niche.”
Holliman, who currently serves as the county coordinator and family and consumer sciences agent in Forrest County, works to establish partnerships with local organizations who share the same goals and educational mission.
“Extension’s strength is that we can tailor our services to what is needed in our county,” she said. “We are team players and that can make the community much better.”
Holliman graduated from Alcorn State University with a plan to be an Extension agent because she didn’t want to be a school teacher like both of her parents.
Extension's strength is that we can tailor our services to what is needed in our county." ~ Tawnya Holliman
“When I became an agent, I figured out I’m actually a teacher but the county is my classroom,” she explained. “Older agents say, ‘We are here for you from the cradle to the grave’ because Extension provides educational information that benefits families financially, with health and nutrition, with parenting or with professional education for those working with young children. Extension has something for Mississippians of all ages.”
Holliman emphasized the importance of volunteers in Extension’s many programs, which include 4-H and Master Gardeners.
“Without volunteers, Extension wouldn’t work at all,” she said.
With the ever-growing interest in do-it-yourself projects and sites like Pinterest, Holliman is confident Extension is perfectly positioned to help Mississippians learn vital skills for the next 100 years.
“My friends ask me gardening questions because they want to grow their own food,” she said. “Sewing classes fill up every time they’re offered. We’re getting back to the basics and Extension is here to help.”