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New WSU Extension agent reaches out
Island County’s Washington State University Extension office has been hit with a lot of challenges and changes over the last couple of years, but the new director has big plans for increasing visibility and accessibility.
Tim Lawrence has the credentials of an old-school extension services director, with a master’s degree in rural sociology, a doctorate in environmental sciences and 20 years of experience working with extension programs in three states.
He’s also an expert in honey bee health and is married to Susan Cobey, “the world’s leading instrumental inseminator of honey bees,” he explained. He has even worked with the Amish on buggy safety.
Yet Lawrence has very modern notions for serving the community. One of his many ideas is to arm staff members and volunteers with a video camera and editing software so they can post segments on the Internet site YouTube. The Master Gardeners, for example, could create how-to videos about gardening or 4-H kids could make short films about animal husbandry. The videos, of course, would be posted on the agency’s ramped-up Web site.
“I’m a big proponent of YouTube,” Lawrence said, explaining that he recently learned how to make compost tea by watching a YouTube video. “We’re going to try to increase this type of service and keep the information as up to date as possible.”
Lawrence also wants to work more with other county departments and outside agencies. He has ideas, for example, for working with the sheriff’s office on safety issues. He’s in the process of meeting with a variety of organizations, from environmentalists to the local farm bureau to building industry groups. He’s working on a grant proposal to improve local markets for local farmers and growers.
“The role WSU should play, and I’m pretty strict about this, is that we don’t advocate for any position,” he said. “We just help people make better decisions.”
He points out that the extension service has huge amounts of resources on the state and federal level that he wants to help the community access more effectively.
His greatest challenge is the budget. The county commissioners slashed the county’s contribution to the WSU Extension budget by 54 percent, down to $150,000 a year, during rounds of budget cuts. Five key members of the staff were cut to part-time. And more budget paring could be ahead unless the county can increase revenue.
The agency lost Judy Feldman, the interim director and long-time employee, when she decided not to pursue the director position. She’s currently volunteering for the county on a civic engagement project to educate the community about county services and open a wider dialogue between the community and county leaders.
WSU Extension’s greatest assets, Lawrence said, are the 1,084 volunteers. When Lawrence came to Coupeville to interview for the job, he also had a job offer from Cornell University. He said the dedication of the volunteers he met, along with a bowl of mussels from Toby’s, helped him make his decision.
The extension office offers a variety of services to the community. There’s the traditional activities, like 4-H, the Master Gardeners, livestock advisory and noxious weed control. But the office also runs a docent program at the Admiralty Head Lighthouse, a sustainability and recycling education program called Waste Wise, the Marine Resources Committee, the Beach Watchers and the Shore Stewards.
“Extension is no longer just about ag,” Lawrence said. “My philosophy is that it’s for everybody.”