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Rural newcomers turn to Georgia county agents

By Sharon Omahen
University of Georgia

On the old Green Acres TV show, Oliver Douglas constantly turned to his county agent for answers to gardening questions. Douglas is a fictional oldie, but urbanites moving to the country and turning to county Extension agents for help are real and now.

"I'd say 85 percent of the calls I get are from people who are either new to the county or new to Georgia," said Jean Walter, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension coordinator for Jasper County.

"They hear about the Extension office by word-of-mouth or from a radio gardening show like Walter Reeves' show on WBS (750 AM) radio," Walter said.

Identifying pests

This week, Walter's office is busy sending soil samples to be analyzed on the UGA Athens campus. A calloused fruit-tree branch lies on a corner of her desk beside a dog-eared wildlife manual.

"I have to diagnose this fruit tree branch first," she said. "Then I have to help with another squirrel call."

Walter and more than 300 other county agents work through UGA Cooperative Extension, an outreach program of the UGA colleges of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and Family and Consumer Sciences. UGA Extension also delivers 4-H youth programming across Georgia.

Besides helping with gardening questions, county agents field calls on many topics, including wildlife damage control.

"We've gotten a lot of calls about squirrels in attics over the past month," she said. "In the fall, we get calls about how to get rid of bats."

Walter said soil and water samples are the "bread and butter" for her office. "We do lots and lots of soil tests," she said. "And it doesn't stop when we send off the sample for testing."

Personal attention

Homeowners in Jasper County call Walter when they get their soil sample results. "Everyone wants me to explain the test to them," she said. "Once I meet a person one time, I make sure they know what we can do to help them. And I get them on our mailing list so they know about upcoming workshops and events."

In northwest Georgia, Hall County Extension Coordinator Billy Skaggs often helps 'reverse snow birds,' Florida transplants who come to north Georgia to enjoy the mountains in winter. These part-time Georgians have questions about native trees and plants they aren't accustomed to.

Skaggs fields calls from first-time homeowners, too. They need landscaping advice like when to prune and how often to fertilize, he said.

The population explosion in Hall County has increased demand for Extension education. "Gwinnett County seems to be spilling over into our county," Skaggs said. "Hall County is home to about 170,000 people now. The population was 90,000 in 1990."

The people boom has changed the county's landscape and the type of phone calls the Extension office gets.

Reaching out to help people

"More and more people from nonfarm backgrounds are moving to the area," Skaggs said. "You used to see horse and cow pastures when you drove through the county. Now you see more and more new houses and new businesses."

But people moving in haven't pushed agriculture out. "We're still the second-largest agricultural county in the state," he said. Franklin County is No. 1.

To reach these new residents, Skaggs writes a weekly newspaper column and hosts a weekly radio call-in show.

"A lot of people find out about (us) by reading a column or listening to the radio show," he said. "With the sheer number of people moving in, we have to rely on the media to help us get information out to the public."

To contact your county agent, just call 1-800-ASK-UGA1 (275-8421) from anywhere in Georgia. You'll be connected to the UGA Extension office in your county.

But you don't have to go to your county office for help. You can find the latest UGA Extension information online at www.ugaextension.com.

(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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