You may have to drive to Lansing to catch a live Spartans football game, but Michigan State University offers a wide-variety of invaluable resources right here in Hillsdale.
For over 100 years, Michigan State University Extension has offered Hillsdale County residents access to knowledge and aid in a variety of areas, ranging from agriculture to food safety, in hopes of growing the local economy and improving everyday life.
“Our job, essentially, is to deliver research-based information that is developed on Michigan State’s campus, as well as on other campuses, to the residents of each county that we serve,” said Matt Shane, who is the district coordinator for district 12, which includes Hillsdale County.
Shane said Extension divides its efforts into four main institutes: Children and Youth, Agricultural and Agricultural Business, Health and Nutrition, and the Green Michigan Institute, which combine to reach approximately 2,000 Hillsdale County residents.
The Children and Youth Institute is likely the most well known thrust of Extension, according to Shane, and is headed by Insa Raymond in the Hillsdale office. It includes an extensive 4-H program for youth ages 5 to 19, which is known primarily for its rural and agrarian skill-development opportunities. In addition to 4-H, Extension also offers youth in the community courses aimed to teach life skills, such as financial literacy, leadership, and science skills.
The Agriculture and Agricultural Business Institute is where the Extension program began, when Michigan State hired its first livestock field agent in 1907, according to the official website.
Today, the institute works with local farms of all types and sizes, in order to help them become more productive, profitable, and sustainable, according to Shelby Burlew, who works as a livestock environmental educator in the Hillsdale office.
“I could be going to a farm that just has a couple of horses or a couple of goats, or I could be working with a farm that is milking over 700 dairy cows,” Burlew said. “I want to work with farmers so that they can manage their farms in an environmentally sustainable way.”
To this end, Burlew said she works extensively with nutrient retention, which improves the productivity of farms, but also helps to lessen their environmental impact.
Scott Ferry, who owns Ferry Farms, LLC, a fourth-generation dairy and crop farm in Litchfield, said he started utilizing the resources available through Extension in 2008, when he moved back to the family farm with his wife Ali, after his father passed away.
“You have to think of the situation of not having a previous generation to help mentor you,” Ferry said. “Being able to utilize your community, local farmers, and the resources through the University was absolutely priceless.”
Since his first contact with Extension, Ferry has deepened his involvement, even serving as the president of the MSU Extension AgBioResearch State Council.
Part of what makes the Extension program so impactful for farmers like the Ferry’s, is the local placement of Extension offices.
“The most important component is that we’re local,” Shane said. “Many of the people in the Hillsdale office reside in Hillsdale County, so they’re a part of the community, and they’re invested in wanting the community to be successful.”
Beyond the farms of Hillsdale, Extension works through its Health and Nutrition institute to educate local students and families on the ins-and-outs of food safety and the importance of a healthy diet. Shane said the program often works with low-income families to help them understand how to eat well on a budget. The institute also provides resources to strengthen social and emotional health, such as anger management and stress reduction courses.
The final institute is the Green Michigan Institute, which works with natural resources, such as water and woodlands. In addition, the institute works with community programs, such as farmers markets and and County Commissioner training.
“What’s unique is that Extension reaches so far outside of just agriculture,” Ferry said. “MSU Extension is present not only in agriculture and helping the development of our food supply, but also it’s the development of communities and the whole civil infrastructure of what it takes to provide resources to communities in need.”
Extension not only offers a wide variety of information, but also gives residents countless ways in which they can access the specific information they need, including affordable — often free — webinars, workshops, hotlines, classroom course, and literature. Shane said one of the most important things to Extension is that the information be made available at a price and in a manner which is practical to those that could use it.
“We really work hard to make sure we are making good use of the funding we are so generously given,” Shane said. “We need to use our dollars as wisely as possible, and because that’s our mindset, we understand that’s how the individuals in the communities we’re serving are — trying to make dollars go as far as they can.”
Since it sent out its first field agent in 1907, MSU Extension has seen significant growth, and now has offices in every county in Michigan. Even with all the expansion and change, the job of Extension employees has remained essentially unchanged: Meeting people where they are and working to help them.
“It’s not just about getting research information to farms,” Burlew said. “Even more important than that is to take a step back, listen with our own two ears to what their needs are … and then to take those needs and get them the information they need to be successful.”