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Elson S. Floyd, Ph.D. - 5/20/10

Think Globally, Act Locally

It may seem counterintuitive. However, visiting southwest Washington this week—an area with some of the highest unemployment and poverty rates in our state—proved to be a perfect antidote to economic pessimism, gloom, and doom.

The spirit and determination of the people we met there was truly inspiring. And the role that Washington State University, especially through Extension and agricultural research programs, plays in helping people help themselves made me proud to be representing our university.

Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, we stopped in Wahkiakum, Cowlitz, Klickitat, Skamania, and Clark counties. These counties share some truly breathtaking landscapes along the Columbia River Gorge. They also share problems of rural isolation and poverty.

While each county we have visited during our 39-county engagement effort is unique, some familiar themes are emerging. The recession has reinforced the importance of self-sufficiency in many hard-hit areas. Community gardens, community-supported agriculture arrangements, and farmers’ markets are cropping up across the state. We hear from people who have left urban areas to start sustainable family farms and from farmers who work with local restaurants and stores to market their products close to where they are grown.

As a land-grant university with Extension offices in every county of Washington, WSU is there to help these efforts. The reach of Extension staff, working with countless community volunteers, is truly astounding. So is the responsiveness of our agricultural faculty and researchers, who are just a phone call or email away when problems arise.

Among our stops on this week’s trip was the Stockhouse Farm on Puget Island outside of Cathlamet, where Rob and Diane Stockhouse host a weekly farmers’ market, in partnership with the Wahkiakum County Extension Office, led by Carrie Kennedy. The event generates more than $1,500 in weekly sales, provides an important outlet for local farmers, and brings people from far and wide to Puget Island.

We heard from Arlan McMullen, the former coordinator of the Clark County Juvenile Court Restorative Services Program. The program, developed in conjunction with Clark County Extension, allows juvenile offenders to give back to the community by working in a community garden. They learn useful life skills, build relationships with community mentors, and produce healthy food for local food banks. Some graduates of the program end up joining 4-H.

We heard about the Horizons project, sponsored by WSU Extension, which helps develop community leadership in rural areas and brings people in isolated small towns together to seek mutual answers to common problems.

Klickitat County Extension Agent Susan Kerr explained the impact of the program this way: “You just have to give people a glimmer of hope and then get out of their way.”

We heard from Rick Shine, whose undiagnosed diabetes cost him his job as a trucker and almost cost him his life before he enrolled in a course taught by Cowlitz County Extension Nutrition Educator Debbie Fredricks. Her expertise helped him learn how to control his diabetes without the use of medication.

The stories we hear during our visits remind me of the adage “Think Globally, Act Locally.” Food sustainability, rural poverty, health care delivery—they are all huge and complex issues. However, it is the responsibility of a land-grant university to tackle those issues at the grass-roots, community level.

Clearly, we can’t do it alone. I have been heartened that on nearly every one of our county visits, we are greeted by county commissioners. They face their own difficult budget issues, but they continue to be excellent partners with WSU in supporting Extension programs. I strongly believe that our visits will strengthen those bonds and lay the foundation for continued collaboration in the future.

Perhaps the best postscript for our southwest Washington trip came from Summer Steenbarger, who has helped establish Dee Creek Farm, a sustainable family farm in Woodland. She expressed great appreciation for the help that her family has received from WSU Extension and agricultural research faculty, both in setting up the business and in establishing sound agricultural practices.

“They give you the tools to use your mind,” Steenbarger said.

I cannot think of a much better endorsement than that.