Houston County gets long vacant agriculture agent position restored

wcrenshaw@macon.comApril 7, 2013 

WARNER ROBINS -- For the first time in years, Houston County will soon have an agriculture agent.

In an era of cutbacks, it was something of a coup for the county to get the position restored.

“I’d say it was a miracle,” said Laura Johnson, Southwest District director for the University of Georgia Extension Service.

The position has been vacant since 2005. Two other positions vacant only a short time are also being filled. Those are the family and consumer science agent and the 4-H coordinator.

All three will start May 1.

Charlotte Mote is the new ag agent, although she also has horticulture experience and will work with homeowners on gardening and landscaping issues as well. The Houston County Extension Service hasn’t had a horticulture specialist since Willie Chance retired in 2009. A part-time person has led the master gardener program, and that position will remain.

Neal Talton, a Houston County farmer and member of the Development Authority, was among those who pushed to bring back the ag agent position.

“It’s going to be a great asset for farmers,” he said. “Agriculture is still a big industry in this county.”

Total agriculture production in Houston was valued at $51 million in 2011, according to the Georgia Extension Service’s 2011 Farm Gate Report, the latest year available.

County Commission Chairman Tommy Stalnaker said he was hopeful of getting the ag agent position restored but presumed the county would have to give up the family and consumer science position.

When Peggy Bledsoe, who had long held that job, retired in November, Stalnaker asked the state to hire an ag agent instead of filling Bledsoe’s job. He didn’t see much chance the state would fill both, and because farmers had been without the assistance of an agent for so long, he thought it only be right to hire an ag agent.

He was thrilled the state was able to fill both, in addition to the 4-H job.

“They were able to balance the balls on this one,” he said.

The key, Johnson said, is that the extension service got a federal grant that pays 80 percent of the salary of the family and consumer science position. That allowed the state to use the money that had funded that position to hire an ag agent.

The county provides office space and pays a salary supplement for the agents.

The new family and consumer science agent is Rebecca Creasy, and the new 4-H agent is April Baggs.

Through the federal grant, Creasy will have a focus on helping low-income families with issues such as financial planning, nutrition and food safety. The job also entails teaching food safety classes to restaurant owners and giving training to child care providers.

“They have their hands in a lot more than people think,” Stalnaker said.

Despite the vast amount of information available on the Internet, Johnson and Talton said it’s still important for farmers to have some expert help.

“So much of what the ag agents do is completely hands on,” she said. “They will go to the farm and diagnose problems, pests or disease. They can take digital pictures and send a picture immediately to a specialist.”

Talton has been in farming all of his life and said he still needs help sometimes.

“They stay abreast of the latest technologies,” he said. “You never know everything.”

Mote holds a bachelor’s degree in agriculture science and environmental systems from the University of Georgia. She has experience in row-crop farming, livestock and horticulture.

She said she has been involved with agriculture since she was 8 years old, when she started working with horses while in 4-H. She is from Covington and lives in Wilcox County.

“I’m quite excited,” she said. “I’ve wanted to do this for years. I’ve wanted to be an extension agent ever since I started college.”

The extension service is holding an open house on May 1 to welcome the new agents. It will be from 4-6 p.m. in the extension office at the old courthouse in downtown Perry. Anyone planning to attend is asked to RSVP at (478) 987-2028.

To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw, call 256-9725.

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