New director, new direction for ag extension offices
The new director of the Penn State Extension District that includes Washington and Greene counties didn’t grow up on a farm, didn’t go to Penn State University, and didn’t study agriculture or home economics.
But with a background in administration, it doesn’t matter if Joseph Conklin arrives at work after a commute from Pittsburgh when someone has a question about dairy hoof health, poultry waste management or stone fruit and grape production. It’s up to him to find a member of his staff who can give an answer.
As director, Conklin works on budgets and finances as part of a system in which the state’s 67 counties have their own formulas for funding their extension offices with a combination of federal, state and county dollars. He’s also point man for the extension office’s human resources and communications, serving as a liaison with county commissioners, advisory boards, community groups and local business and industry organizations. Coming from Bradford, Conklin said he’s attuned to Marcellus Shale issues. “The McDonald’s in my town has a fully functional oil derrick,” he said. The pump jack is the oldest continuously-producing oil well in Bradford.
Raising the profile of Penn State Extension is also one of his missions, because the term doesn’t resonate with many people.
But mention the 4-H program or the master gardener program and the name recognition level rises significantly. What people don’t seem to realize is that without the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences, there wouldn’t be a 4-H office or a master gardener program.
“Its’s a branding label they need to start getting across because people aren’t associating it with Penn State Extension,” Conklin said.
Fewer than 5 percent of Pennsylvanians are part of the agricultural community, but in addition to its livestock and crop production programs, Penn State Extension also focuses on natural resources, youth and family, nutrition and health.
Conklin came to the three-county area, known as “District 10” after an eight-year teaching career in the Bradford Area School District and secondary social studies department head from 2009 to 2012. He then worked in academic affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.
Penn State Extension, which has a 101-year-long presence in Washington County, has as its primary role putting research into people’s hands, and one major way of doing this is providing programs and educational information through a network of practical courses and workshops that aren’t related to college credit. Education for adults isn’t necessarily related to an associates’ or four-year degree. “People need to learn a skill, and that’s what Penn State Extension is providing,” Conklin said.
And while the 4-H program is commonly associated with children raising livestock, Conklin said its not out of the question that 4-H can also include science, technology, engineering and mathematics through rocketry, robotics or archery.
“It’s not changing, it’s expanding to reach another set of youth that might not be interested in raising livestock,” he said. But he also mentioned that there’s a single fee for 4-H membership, allowing those between 8 and 18 to join as many clubs as they’d like. The districtwide 4-H program has about 1,300 members.
Conklin’s arrival at the beginning of August allowed him to attend county fairs in all three counties, including Fayette, that make up the district.
His father’s family is from a farm in Cattaraugus, N.Y., and father and son visited the West Alexander Fair at the western edge of Washington County at the beginning of September. In one of the barns, they came upon an extension office booth, that of the West Virginia University Extension Office.
“My dad looks at me and says, ‘Where’s your booth?’ ” Conklin said. “So, next year, we’re going to have a booth.”
And you can be sure he’ll be handing out copies of the 64-page booklet of Penn State Extension’s noncredit courses and workshops on topics as diverse as green infrastructure, pest management in turf, cider safety or venison processing that can also be found at www.extension.psu.edu.