Keep your friends close and your Friends of Extension closer

Life came full circle for Andrew Walker when he used his leadership skills from 4-H to save MSU Extension programming in his county.

February 4, 2019

Image of house with image text: What is less than 2 cents a day in Ogemaw County?

Keep your friends close and your Friends of Extension closer - Transcript

andrew-walker-349ab219Jeff  Dwyer: In 2016, due to financial hardships, the Ogemaw County Board of Commissioners ended their direct budget support of Michigan State University Extension operations in that county. They decided instead to ask voters to approve a county-wide multi-service millage to fund the program. In response, county residents came together to form the Ogemaw County Friends of Extension group to advocate, fundraise and create awareness of the value of MSU Extension programs in the county. I'm Jeff  Dwyer and I have the privilege of being the director of Michigan State University Extension. My guest today on Partnerships and Peninsulas is Andrew Walker, a member of the Ogemaw County Friends of Extension, a group that calls themselves FOX. Welcome, Andrew.

Andrew Walker: Hi.

Dwyer: How are you?

Walker: Good. It's good to be here today.

Dwyer: Well, thank you very much. Andrew, tell me, what connection did you have to MSU Extension before this recent involvement around the millage?

Walker: Actually, I've grown up with Extension and 4-H all of my life. My parents were both 4-H leaders when I was very young and I couldn't wait to get involved in 4-H when I was old enough to. Then, when I was old enough to I gladly joined right in, got into multiple clubs and participated in 4-H throughout my entire youth and teen years. I got more involved in 4-H as I got older. I was able to participate in the state 4-H awards programs and some state and national 4-H programs. During college, I went here to Michigan State University for undergrad and to law school, and during my undergrad years I was able to intern in the 4-H office as well-

Dwyer: Fantastic.

Walker:... with the Capitol Experience Program. That was something I participated in as a youth and helped guide me and direct me into my career path of being a lawyer and find some interest in government and politics and things. Then I was able to intern and help put that Capitol Experience Program on in college and then after college, now, I've been a 4-H leader for about eight years back in Ogemaw County.

Dwyer: That's fantastic. What club or what areas have you been providing leadership to now at this stage of your life?

Walker: I'm a 4-H Swine Leader. My club has about 50-65 members in it depending on the year, so it's a pretty large club, the biggest in Ogemaw County. I really enjoy the work that I do and helping to give back to the youth in the county and continuing the 4-H program there. It’s something that I enjoy.

Dwyer: Oh, that's fantastic and we're certainly grateful for all that you do. For our listeners who maybe don't live in more rural areas, and even if they do may not be familiar with what a Swine Club is or does, tell us a little bit about that.

Walker: Sure. Basically the club is focused on the swine project, which is pigs, essentially. We start in January and our club goes through August every year. We help them learn about raising a market livestock project. Each of the members gets a piglet in the spring and then they raise that animal up throughout the year and we help educate those members on the health of the animal and raising them and being good stewards and raising the animal for what the consumers will want and then marketing that project at the county fair each year in August to buyers. They get to show that animal and then sell the animal and they get to learn about being a farmer or raising a pig on a small scale. It's more than just the agriculture aspect, they learn business and a lot of life skills throughout the process also.

Dwyer: That's right. Again, for some of our listeners who don't go to county fairs and things like that, I'm always impressed by understanding that ... you mentioned marketing. I know that some of the kids who you work with are tremendous marketers and are making sure that people know that they have a pig at the fair that will be up for sale, and please bid on my pig and all of those ...

Walker: That's right.

Dwyer: And it matters, right?

Walker: Yes. Oh yeah, it does. Absolutely.

Dwyer: It's like any sales job. And then I'm always struck by, and maybe something that a lot of people don't realize, but over time some of these kids are able to fund a portion of college tuition, for example, with the dollars they've received from the raising and sale of these pigs.

Walker: Yeah, that's true. A lot of our members reinvest a little bit of their earnings from the previous year into their next year's projects and it helps them grow and expand their projects, but then they're able to use a lot of those funds that they receive to help further their education and put that towards college or some sort of training beyond high school. It really is a good program to help them do that.

Dwyer: We appreciate all that you do for many reasons, but let me just acknowledge that a swine club of 60 or 65 kids and accompanying swine, that's a lot.

Walker: Yeah.

Dwyer: So we need to be clear that you're devoting a lot of time from January to August to making that happen and we're really grateful for that. Tell me, when you learned in 2016 that the Ogemaw County Board of Commissioners would no longer be able to fund MSU Extension through the traditional budgeting process, what did you do?

Walker: Actually, the main event started in 2016 but there were signs of things even years prior to that. The county helps fund Extension locally as well as through state and federal and grant dollars, and so the county is an integral part of that. We had been noticing that the county had been having financial difficulties for a number of years prior to 2016 and they had been filling those financial gaps and balancing their budget through their revolving fund by taking money out of the fund that comes from the tax dollars or the foreclosed home sales. They had been filling those gaps and it had been working fairly well, but we knew that that couldn't continue forever. In 2016 it finally came to a head and the county said, "We're no longer able to provide certain services because we can't keep balancing the budget in this way. We either need to pass a millage or we're going to have to cut multiple services to the county." Extension was one of those services that was on the chopping block.

            Multiple people encouraged the county, no, you need to keep Extension and so the county's plan was to propose a multi-service millage. It was a larger millage and it included multiple services and then they provided that to county voters in August of 2016 and the county voters, unfortunately, turned that down. For possibly a number of reasons, but I think that the millage was such a broad scope millage and it was left to the discretion of the commissioners on what they were going to do with those funds. They had said that they would use them for certain things, including saving Extension, but there would have been no guarantee necessarily. That was the real starting point in 2016, was after that August election, the primary election. That's when our Friends of Extension group formed officially, after that. We came together and we went to the commissioners' meeting and petitioned them to allow us to go onto our own millage in November of 2016. We asked that Extension be allowed to be separate, because we thought that it would be able to pass that way.

            Unfortunately, again, the commissioners wanted to rerun the multi-services millage. They said, "No, we think maybe a second chance at this and it will pass." That's what they did, they reran that and it failed again. Then we were kind of at a crossroads at that point because there wasn't another election that would be held until 2018. That left a two year gap and, in the meantime, the county said we're not going to fund Extension so you're kind of out of luck, essentially. That was the big crossroads and we, as a group, had to decide what were we going to do. That's where the partnership really began with the Friends of Extension and MSU Extension at the state level. MSU Extension helped continue that program until we could come up with a plan. We were working with the commissioners locally and trying to come up with something to fund the program, even before the 2018 election.

            Ultimately it came down to where the county said they weren’t going to do it. So our group decided, well, we can't let this program just leave the county and there has to be some sort of county level funding to keep it here. The option that remained was that our group had to raise the county level portion of those funds to partner with Extension and keep the program going in Ogemaw County, until it could go on the ballot in 2018. So that's what we set out to do, and we fundraised for over a year and did multiple different things. We did dinner dances, we did multiple dinner dances, we did a spaghetti dinner, we did a raffle partnering with another group, and we were able to raise close to $40,000 and come up with enough funds to meet the county's obligation or at least an agreement with the state level Extension to keep the program operating until 2018 when it could be placed on the ballot in August of 2018. The county agreed that they would then allow the Extension-only millage to be placed on that ballot in August of 2018.

Dwyer: Then what happened?

Walker: After months of campaigning, we were happy to say that it was successful and it did pass with about 67% of the support. Our group, throughout this past summer of 2018, we really were out doing a lot of outreach to the community. We went to township meetings and community meetings and just did any kind of outreach we could. We bought a billboard, we did a lot of newspaper advertising, radio advertising, purchased literature that we could pass out to the public. We wanted to ensure that this thing was going to pass now. We had invested so much to keep it until 2018 that we couldn't drop the ball before we got it over the line there and we needed to get this thing passed. Further pressure was that the county had said we're going to give you one opportunity and if it passes, great, if it doesn't, then you're going to be out of luck again. We had multiple factors coming in and so we decided we have to press on and just get this done and that's what we were able to do.

Dwyer: Well, Andrew, it's a fantastic story and let me say, as the director of MSU Extension I couldn't be more proud of the partnership that we've had with the Friends of Extension Group in Ogemaw County, our district director in that area and all of our people who work in Ogemaw County. But as you pointed out a couple of times, we've worked together in a partnership at the state level too. I think that it's not only a great story, but it's what we hope we're about and it gives me the opportunity to acknowledge that we now have ... Well, let me say first that counties remain an important contributor to the budget portfolio of Extension. We can't fully do what we do without the contribution of counties, just like we can't without our state funding or our federal funding or the more than $30 million we get by going out and getting competitive grants and contracts and those sorts of things. So it's exceedingly important and we now have millages in 12 different counties.

            It's a changing landscape for us, but let me just acknowledge to all of our listeners that what you and all of the others did as part of the Friends of Extension team in Ogemaw County was really remarkable. The fact that you raised nearly $40,000 to keep us going. as you acknowledge, we made a commitment to being there as much as we could, that funding helped us be there even more and then, to get to that millage and have it pass by a two to one margin is really, really fantastic. Let me ask you a really direct question. If I recall, it was an eight year millage that passed?

Walker: Yes.

Dwyer: So that millage exists, what do you expect of us at MSU Extension over the next eight years?

Walker: Extension has been great in Ogemaw County and I think that they're going to continue to be great there. I just want to see it continue to grow and expand and meet the needs of the community. I think that one silver lining to having a millage is that you're forced to get out there and see what the community wants out of the Extension program in the county and to market it to those people and say, "This program values you and is of value to you." I think that that's helpful because, not only are you promoting the program, but you're also getting feedback on what direction does the program Extension need to take in the county going forward to best meet the needs of the citizens of the county. I think just continuing to grow the program, diversify the program to meet the needs of the youth and the adults and see what's out there and try to get involved best into the community, I think, is the most important way. I think that by doing that, that will continue to perpetuate the community support that we've had in Ogemaw County and help future millages pass as well.

Dwyer: It's a great point. One of the things I talk about often is that even though MSU Extension has been around for more than 100 years, even though we have nearly 700 people all over the state, there are still a lot of people who know nothing about us. As I'm sure you have learned over the years, even among those who do know us well, often they only know us for one or two things.

Walker: Right, yeah.

Dwyer: And they don't know the breadth of what we do. I'm really grateful and I think you said it very well, that I completely agree that one of the byproducts of the millage, and of especially what's gone on in Ogemaw County around marketing the program and making people aware, is I'm quite confident that there are many, many, many people in Ogemaw County who either know Extension that didn't know us before, or know more about us than they knew before. I think our commitment to you and to all of those who work closely with you is, to not only continue to provide the programming we've always provided in Ogemaw, but to bring new and different programming that are needed there, regardless of what that might be and to have you tell us what programming would be most helpful.What would you like other communities around the state to know about MSU Extension?

Walker: I would say two things. First that, if you're not involved the with the programs that MSU Extension has, then you really need to go down to your local Extension office and find out what programs are being offered. Whether it's the 4-H programs or the health and nutrition programs or a variety of other things, there's probably something there that can benefit you. I think that's vital, is to go check out what your local Extension office has to offer. Secondly, if you're involved in Extension and you find that your county is having issues or financial difficulties, I think that it's important to get into the process early and interact with those county commissioners. Let them know that there are a lot of people in that county who are there to support the Extension program there; they don't want to see it go. By doing that you're going to make it a lot more difficult for those commissioners to simply try to chop that program out and leave it there and then move onto something else.

            It's important to get in that process early and then, if you have to go through the millage process also, that lets those commissioners know that there's support there and that people will help get that millage passed and continue the services in Extension.

Dwyer: You don't know this yet, Andrew, but I think your new volunteer responsibility is, we're going to take you on the road all over the state to talk about the experience you've had in Ogemaw County. We appreciate very much your personal involvement and the entire team of people. I'd love to take this opportunity to acknowledge that we had the opportunity and it was, frankly, our honor a couple of weeks ago at our Fall conference here in East Lansing to acknowledge the Ogemaw County Friends of Extension group as one of our key partners. It was really a fun evening and we really appreciated the opportunity to recognize all that you've done in that way.

Walker: Yeah, yeah, that was great. Very unexpected, but I know that the committee appreciated that and, just to the aspect, is that this type of commitment does take a whole group of people. One person can't take it on and do it all themselves. We had a great committee in Ogemaw county, former 4-H members, current 4-H leaders and volunteers, 4-H parents and those involved previously and currently with Extension. Assembling that team who's going to be dedicated to it is vital and we were able to do that and that's why it was so successful here. And then, also through the support of the MSU Extension staff. Obviously they can't campaign or do anything like that, but they were there as a resource to help educate us so that we could get the message of what Extension does to all the citizens of the county. That staff was also vital and important to the process as well.

Dwyer: It's a really great point and a really great summary of the experience we've had together over the last couple of years. This is Partnerships and Peninsulas. My name is Jeff  Dwyer and I have the privilege of being the Director of Michigan State University Extension. My guest today has been Andrew Walker. Thank you, Andrew, very much for joining me today.

Walker: Thank you.

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