In a rural county such as Greene, Iowa State University Extension plays an important role in youth programming, agriculture and community development, and many people can name a staff person or two in the office. Those staff people are the “face” of Extension, but as in many things, there are other people behind the scene. David Higgins, as a member of the Greene County Extension Council, has been behind the scene for 25 years. He attended his last Extension Council meeting in November, wrapping up a tenure that began in 1988.
Higgins was “drafted” for the Extension Council by Ima Lee Erickson, a good friend who served on the council. “Our kids were in 4-H at the time, and I decided I’d go on and help out,” Higgins said. He remained on the council because “I saw a lot of kids who enjoyed 4-H and enjoyed the fairs. It was the right thing to do.” He was appointed to fill a term, and then elected to four-year terms six times.
Higgins patiently explains the role of the Extension Council, to which members are elected on the general election ballot. The Extension Council functions rather like a city council or a school board, hiring the Extension coordinator, the youth and 4-H coordinator and other staff, setting priorities for the county Extension, and creating and adhering to an annual budget.
Babysitting classes for youngsters, manure application training, informational meetings like the recent one about the Farm Bill or the summer meeting about emerald ash borer, and financial literacy are among the programs the council directs or hires staff to implement.
The local Extension Council has a budget of about $180,000 a year, which comes from a 3-cent (per thousand dollars of taxable valuation) levy approved by voters in 1992. Higgins is proud that Greene County was among the first counties in Iowa to approve an Extension levy. He was asked many times to visit other counties to talk about the Extension levy.
Along with passing the Extension levy, Higgins is also proud of the Greene County Extension office located at the corner of N. Wilson and W. Washington St. Greene County Extension was the second in the state to own rather than lease a building. The building opened in 1998. Total cost of the 2,800 square- foot building was $170,000, with $135,000 of that being borrowed. Higgins said the council managed to pay off the 15-year mortgage in only 4-1/2 years. “It’s a great location where people can very easily find Extension,” Higgins said about the building.
Higgins already had 20 years of experience with Extension matters when ISU Extension did a major restructuring in 2009. Up until then, a portion of the county coordinator’s and youth and 4-H coordinator’s salaries came from ISU Extension. Now those salaries come from the Council’s local levy. “They give us less money, but that gives us more control over what we do,” Higgins said.
With the restructuring, Greene has been placed with Carroll, Guthrie and Shelby counties for ISU Extension’s administrative purposes. Representatives of the four counties meet with ISU Extension regional director Terry Torneton every other month; Higgins has been Greene County’s representative at those meetings. “You get a different perspective on how each county is run,” Higgins said. Extension field specialists report to the regional group, and Higgins said he has enjoyed learning from them things that have helped him in his work as a farmer, crop adjuster, and tax preparer. He plans to continue attending the meetings. “It’s nice to rub shoulders with good friends,” he said.
He has high praises for the work of the Greene County Fair board in the work it does for the county fair and the fairgrounds. “I’ve been to fairs all over the state, and our fairgrounds are among the best,” he said.
As he leaves the Extension Council, he sees maintaining numbers in 4-H and youth programs as the biggest challenge facing the council. He points to decreasing numbers in the 4-H beef project and in “big” opportunities like the annual Washington Focus trip. “Kids have so many other things to do that it just seems harder to get them to take advantage of all 4-H offers,” he said.
The Greene County Extension Council meets the first Tuesday of each month at 6:30 pm at the Extension office. The meetings are open to the public.