PALMETTO -- Back in your grandfather's day, the county extension agent was probably the fellow who picked up 4-H kids and took them to club meetings. He also worked with farmers on insect and disease problems. And he worked with ranchers, offering tips on raising cattle. He wore many hats.
The county extension agent today is not the same as in grandfather's day. Agents are more specialized, there are more of them, and they have faster access to helpful information that was unheard of back in the day.
These days, the Manatee County Extension Office in Palmetto has nine county agent positions, headed by a county extension director. The office reflects the growing urbanization of a community where agriculture is still vitally important. Manatee County ranks first in tomato production in Florida, and ninth in beef cattle. It also is a robust citrus and vegetable producer.
During the course of a year, those agents will have face-to-face encounters with about 115,000 people, said Samantha Kennedy, who was named county extension director about four
Kennedy replaced Marina D'Abreau, who took a job in Mississippi. While Kennedy is new to the director's position, she is not new to the county. She has worked with the Manatee County Extension Office about 9 1/2 years and was previously the family and consumer services agent.
Her duties included working on indigent health care issues, reaching out to low-income families to teach them basic nutrition and budgeting skills to improve the quality of their lives.
"A lot of people tend to think of it as cows and plows," Kennedy said of the public perception of what the county extension office does.
Manatee County agents are assigned to assist everything from recreational and commercial fisheries, to ornamental horticulture, and water conservation, as well as livestock and vegetables.
"Manatee County is lucky because we have all these specialities," Kennedy said.
Many of the face-to-face interactions with the public occur during the Manatee County Fair, when agents and staff work with youth livestock, staff a booth and more.
In 2014, the Extension Office will conduct a water school for public officials and those thinking of running for office. The school focuses on protection of water resources, such as rivers and lakes, and water conservation.
Other classes offered focus on farm food safety, gardening, and others that are listed on the extension office's website.
Among services is a mobile irrigation lab, which makes home visits and offers recommendations for conserving water based on soil type and the kinds of plants around a home.
"We try to educate people that the extension office is here with all of the services that we offer," Kennedy said.
Florida, known for its beaches and sunshine, is also known for its insects and plant diseases.
"We get a lot of interesting questions and samples to look at," Kennedy said.
If the local staff is unable to get an answer for a question or problem, they can turn to researchers at the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Several agent positions are currently open, including commercial horticulture and environmental horticulture, and Kennedy's old position, family and consumer services. Those positions are expected to be filled in early 2014.
Ralph Garrison, owner of Suncoast Nursery, said he was especially glad to hear that a commercial horticulture agent is being added.
"It's a tremendous resource," Garrison said.
The county extension office has helped growers overcome a number of pests over the years, including the sweet potato white fly and chilli thrips, Garrison said.
The county extension office is funded by the state of Florida, Manatee County and some federal dollars.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter: @jajones1