by George Thompson, Reporter and Farmer
It has been a little over 14 months since Day and Marshall counties decided to share a 4-H advisor, but by most accounts, the move was a good one.
The two counties wound up sharing a 4-H advisor after the SDSU Extension Service, facing massive funding cuts, revised its entire program including pink slipping individual county extension educators across the state.
They were replaced by eight regional extension centers, and in Day and Marshall’s case, a shared 4-H advisor. The half-time position initially cost each county $8,375 and represents a percentage of the annual salary and benefit costs. The extension service picks up the balance, and the advisor will be a state employee.
At the time there were other options, including a full time advisor. Some counties chose to split a position three and even four ways.
Current 4-H advisor Jennifer Ringkob came on board in December 2011, and the program has been run with few if any problems.
“I think we have really been fortunate to have her,” Day County Commission chairman Rick Tobin said. “The fair went smoothly. She gets along well with the parents and kids, and she’s visiting the schools. We’re really lucky.”
“We have seen no big problems,” Marshall County Commissioner Paul Symens commented. “We’ve been able to feel our way through this.”
Symens felt the transition was smooth because the two county governments have worked together in the past and have similar ag communities, plus they’ve gone through other things like natural disasters.
“We were looking at a whole new process when this happened,” Symens continued. “Extension did a good job of changing their programs. They adapted to what they needed and to their customers’ needs, too. There’s still some things that need to be smoothed out. We’re not totally done with it (overall extension program).”
Peter Nielson, SDSU Extension 4-H youth development program director, agrees with Symens’ assessment.
“Overall it’s working,” he said. “The first year we worked through some of the integral issues. In our second year we hope to spread out our resources which will be a huge change from before.”
Nielson says one of the first priorities is to provide the advisors with more and better support. “We are redoing things at the state level to try to help them (advisors) out,” he said.
The program director thinks the new program is succeeding, but admits there’s been some bumps in the road.
“We had instances where advisors haven’t been the right fit,” he said. “It’s a work in progress. We’ve had new people step in and do an excellent job, but we’ve also had experienced people who haven’t. You increase the chances of success when the advisor serves a smaller geographic area where there aren’t many communities involved.”
Nielson said the regional service centers have, for the most part, been successful, although they have had their own set of issues.
“You have to remember those specialist teams are new and going through some growing pains,” he said.
After the first year they’ve been able to identify their strengths and now we want to expand to provide more benefits throughout the whole system.
During the transition the extension service came up with a new 4-H advisor job description that includes:
•Guidance for 4-H policies and procedures with regular communication to 4-H families and the community through traditional social media.
•Organize and manage achievement days.
•County organization, registration and involvement at the state fair.
•Facilitate competitive events between partner counties.
•Potential for after school and school enrichment programs.
•Limited introduction of key 4-H educational programs and activities.
•Part-time advisory role and presence for 4-H leaders and junior leaders.
Ringkob felt the biggest personal challenges when she signed on came in learning about all of the programs and resources available and meeting all the people involved in 4-H in each of the two counties.
“For the most part, I split my time between the two counties pretty evenly without a set schedule,” she said. “It all depends on what activities or events are going on. I’m always reachable. Jessie and Karen (office assistants in both counties) play an integral part in our success. They know the people and the resources in each county.”
Ringkob also stresses that while 4-H is a major part of her duties, it’s not the only one.
“I still field questions about issues like crops, livestock or insects,” she said, “but I will act as a middleman and refer things to one of the regional centers for their expertise.”
Ringkob says she often follows up on those types of questions to make sure the public contact has been satisfactory.
“Our new programs are also getting into some exciting new areas like science and technology,” she said. “We’re doing an afterschool program at Enemy Swim Day School, and I’ve been working with the public schools.”
She’s even working with Glacial Lakes Area Development to put together customer service-tourism training skills for employees.
“The 4-H program is very easy to get attached to because of all of the opportunities that are out there,” she concluded. “It was a real transition for me to start a new career, but think it went smoothly. I couldn’t have done it without the support from everyone involved.”
Day County 4-H Leaders Association president Thad Duerre admits the group had some real concerns about sharing an advisor when the concept was first put forward, but over time have found it a very workable arrangement.
“I am pleasantly surprised,” he said. “It’s definitely placed more emphasis on the leaders’ association, but it’s nice having a person in a position who can make things run smoothly. The biggest single reason this works is that there is almost always someone in the office.”
Duerre says the shared position really hasn’t changed the way the youth groups are run. He noted 4-H supporters were happy the county was willing to continue to fund the position, noting supporters were prepared to raise funds on their own to ensure the program’s future.
“I’m a believer that 4-H is handled better at the local rather than on the state level,” he said. “SDSU is doing as much as possible to see to it that the people of Day County are taken care of. Together, we’ll make sure that it happens. We’re very pleased with what Jennifer has done. She’s doing a very good job.”