Extension continues to reach out to public
More than year after Hurricane Harvey flooded the Harris County Bear Creek Extension Office, the agents remain housed in temporary quarters near Willowbrook Mall, but they continue to offer the same help with horticulture and agriculture, family and community health and youth programs.
“We are still in temporary space in classrooms at Prairie View Northwest campus off Grant Road near Texas 249 in northwest Houston,” said Robert “Skip” Richter, M. Agriculture, County Extension Agent - Horticulture. “To be candid, a new home is not in the immediate future.”
Most of the Extension staff is housed at the campus. Not having an office has limited some services, he said. Staff openings exist for agriculture and 4-H agents, while horticulture is fully staffed. The campus hosts meetings and programs and the Extension service uses facilities across the county for programs.
For example, Harris County Master Gardeners are hosting their traditional fall plant sale in October. Formerly at Bear Creek, the sale will be at The Berry Center, 8877 Barker Cypress Road, Cypress, from 9 a.m.-noon Saturday, Oct. 6. Visit hcmga.tamu.edu or call 713-274-0950 for information. Its counterpart in East Harris County is the Campbell Hall Pasadena Fairgrounds, 7600 Red Bluff Road, Pasadena, which will host spring sales.
“We’re taking Extension to where the people are,” said Richter, who’s been a Harris County agent for seven of his 29 years in Extension horticulture.
“We do programs at a number of libraries,” he said. The Green Thumb series brings monthly programs to libraries in Katy, Spring Branch, Spring and Clear Lake. Open Garden Day has been relocated to the Weekley Community Center, 8440 Greenhouse Road.
Master Gardeners man booths at home and garden shows and farmers markets to share publications and information. A speakers bureau will send representatives to speak to groups about different topics from rainwater harvesting to landscaping.
Harvey presented a challenge for the Extension which was based at Bear Creek for nearly 40 years. “Bear Creek was a great facility,” said Richter.
But Tax Day floods in 2016 closed the Bear Creek Extension Office for months. The Extension Service celebrated the reopening on Dec. 2, 2016, only to have Harvey come in August 2017. John Blount, Harris County engineer, recommended not rebuilding the Bear Creek Community Center or extension office because of the flooding risk, and was supported by Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack.
Bear Creek also served as a site for plant trials which have been moved to different parts of the county. “We evaluate plants and gardening practices in a research-type trial to determine the best plants to choose for the area and the best way to grow them,” Richter said. “It’s science-based recommendations and not just opinions.”
“The goal is to be an unbiased source of information for people,” said Richter. “We’re not connected to selling anything. Call us, email us or come to one of the Extension programs. Download free publications. During office hours or if you’re awake at 2 a.m., there’s a way to get information from Extension.”
While public contact initially dipped because the Extension lost its meeting space, activity has picked back up. “We reach out in other ways,” he said. “There are other ways people can reach us not affected by flood or location.” A visit to https://ask.extension.org/ask can get a resident information they need. The national website directs questioners to local Extension agents. People can attached up to three photos to a question to help identify an unknown insect or what’s affecting their tomato plants.
Looking at crisp photos with sharp focus allows agents to help more people as opposed to if they had to drive around and do house visits, Richter said. Master Gardeners also request photos to follow up on calls they receive on the hotline which operates 9 a.m.-noon Mondays and Wednesdays. The hotline number is 713-274-0950. For more in-depth answers, photos can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Richter suggests https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/ and http://www.agrilifebookstore.org/Default.asp as other helpful sites. “The Extension goal is to take the university to the people. The website allows us to do that.” At the bookstore site, Richter explained the vast majority of information is free to download and it covers a variety of topics from agriculture to roaches, to mosquitoes and raising chickens in the backyard to food safety at home and cooking tips.
Richter observed that there’s lots of interest by people in growing food at home and pointed to Earthkind, a program that offers ways to grow in a more environmentally sound way.
Facts sheets in English and Spanish offer tips for growing foods at home from artichokes to turnips and mustard. It’s time to be planting a cool season garden and people can learn how to plant broccoli, lettuce and spinach.
Combining people’s choices of food and their lack of exercise presents a significant health concern which Extension works to address. Walk Across Texas is an exercise program with companies and organizations to get their employees/members walking.
Extension also reaches out through partnerships with other agencies that have a mission or goal where Extension information can assist them such as municipal utility districts interested in water conservation, schools that want to educate youth about food and nutrition or the city of Houston wanting help with information related to horticulture and nutrition. “Extension education can be helpful in enhancing their mission,” said Richter.