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Green and growing

North Carolina’s Cooperative Extension Service at 100—Part 3

By Carole Howell

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Today’s North Carolina’s Cooperative Extension Service, celebrating 100 years, reaches more people than you may think in more ways than you may imagine.

With its history of responding to needs relevant in times of economic depression, war and disasters, and rooted in agriculture, research and education, the service continues to evolve.  Here’s just a short list of some of the surprising ways Cooperative Extension is changing lives in North Carolina.

Much ado about agriculture

More and more people in the state are exploring farming as a hobby or even as a vocation. In 2011, North Carolina’s Cooperative Extension Service in Davidson County responded by creating the first Farm School for beginning and experienced farmers.

“We thought that if we got 10 participants, we’d do well, but from the start we had more than 30 and a waiting list,” said agricultural Extension agent Amy Lynn Alberson of Davidson County.

The state quickly expanded the program to three Farm Schools: Piedmont, Foothills, and Sandhills. Coordinators hope to add a fourth school next year.

4-H growing future leaders

Youth development is a key focus for Cooperative Extension. Guided by educators and adult and teen volunteers, today’s 4-H Club members are involved in social, energy, environmental issues and community service. Each year, more than 4,000 participants learn life skills at one of three 4-H camps, and thousands more participate in afterschool and special interest programs, such as beekeeping and energy science, at the local level.

Audra Ellis of Lincoln County, and her 5-year-old daughter, Addi, represent four generations of 4-H. “When my mother was in 4-H it was all about canning and sewing,” said Ellis. “Today they’re learning about interview skills, resume writing, budgeting and technology. 4-H has evolved with the times.”

E-Conservation equals savings

Controlling energy costs is high on the list for consumers. The E-Conservation program uses workshops, an extensive website, and in-home energy audits to educate homeowners. The program supplies energy kits and, in some cases, helps with home improvements and minor retrofitting.

“We help people realize that there are easy and inexpensive do-it-yourself solutions to wasted resources and higher bills,” said Laura Langham of Youth, Family, and Community Sciences at the N.C. State University’s Cooperative Extension Service.

Education to fight obesity

“Eat Smart, Move More North Carolina” combines education about healthy eating and physical activity with opportunities to practice lifestyles to prevent obesity.

“We’re showing people how to make better choices in what they eat, and we can do this by making healthier food available and easy to access,” said Carolyn Dunn, professor, N.C. State University, N.C. Cooperative Extension and lead writer of the “Eat Smart, Move More North Carolina” obesity prevention plan.

Professor Dunn added that besides nutrition education, they’re working to foster policies and environments for physical activity from toddlers to adults. They strive to reach every audience they can to help more people maintain a healthy weight.

Master Gardeners

Cooperative Extension’s Master Gardener volunteers extend a green thumb to homeowners by sharing their passion and expertise for everything that grows. Since 1979, these lifelong learners share advice for making environmentally responsible decisions about gardens, lawns and landscapes.

For example, recent Master Gardener workshops in Haywood County included topics such as water conservation and quality, composting and earth-friendly lawn and turf management skills.

“We’re way more than pretty plants,” says Lucy Bradley, Extension specialist in urban horticulture.

Local foods fresher

Community farmers markets are blooming, many driven by Cooperative Extension local foods coordinators in each North Carolina county to help farmers find a market for their farm-fresh, home-grown produce, meat and seafood.

Since 2010, the 10 Percent Campaign has encouraged consumers to spend 10 percent of food dollars on locally grown and produced foods. Schools, restaurant owners, large-scale grocers and individuals are getting involved, resulting in well more than $60 million dollars spent on locally produced foods to date.

Plowing ahead

Never content to rest as long as there’s work to be done, North Carolina’s Cooperative Extension Service plans to remain vital and relevant for the next 100 years.

In September 2013, Extension launched a strategic planning initiative to respond to changes in the social, political, economic and technological environment. 

“It’s an ideal time to celebrate our success and to look at how we can maintain that success,” says Justin Moore of Extension communications, who adds that this summer they plan to roll out some of the changes that will take place over the next two years.

“Our vision is to make sure that we align our financial, human and research resources to our core of agriculture, food and youth development,” says Joseph Zublena, associate dean and director of the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service. “We’ll be high tech, but maintain our commitment to high-touch. Face-to-face contact has kept us ahead of the game when issues emerge.”

He puts a fine point on it: “We’re known as the state’s best-kept secret, but we don’t want to keep it that way.”

Get answers

So what do you want to know?  From food safety to farming, local foods to healthier families, raising chickens to creating a colorful garden, North Carolina’s county Extension agents have answers you can use. All you have to do is ask. Find out what your county offers at

Helping young people become great citizens and leaders

North Carolina’s electric cooperatives’ deep-rooted relationship with Cooperative Extension is most evident today in their support of the North Carolina 4-H youth development program that blankets much of the electric cooperatives’ service territory.

A signature event is the annual 4-H Congress that brings together 600 young people representing every county in the state. 4-H delegates convene in Raleigh for workshops designed to expand their skills in leaderships, current issues and the democratic process. Over the years, hundreds of 4-H’ers have participated in the Touchstone Energy-sponsored Citizenship Track, which explores effective advocacy, the importance of having an educated citizenry and voting, and identifying how public policy can solve community problems. These young leaders visit the state capital to discuss local and state issues, meet with state legislators and participate in the recording of the public affairs television program “NC SPIN.” 4-H’ers come away with a deeper understanding of how they can be advocates, and how they can bring about change in their communities.

The co-ops also are a sponsor of the Electric Presentation Awards, which are $50–$75 scholarships to 4-H Congress. To win an award, participants create presentations demonstrating their knowledge of electricity, conservation of energy, and related principles.

Some co-ops support livestock shows, youth camps and scholarships. Others provide electric safety demonstrations, participate in field days, donate materials for energy efficiency campaigns, have employees serve on advisory committees and support disaster preparedness programs. Several cooperatives host annual golf tournaments that collectively raise more than $50,000 for local 4-H programs across the state each year.

— Lindsey Listrom

This is part three in a series.
North Carolina's Cooperative Extension Service at 100

Part 1: A seed that grew deep roots

Part 2: Power Up!

Part 3: Green and growing

About the Author

Carole Howell is an independent writer and amateur muscadine grower in Lincoln County. You can read more about her at

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