MALVERN –Extension Director Sherry Ford is losing her job at the end of the month, which means the citizens of Mills County are losing a valuable community resource.
Thanks to a cost-cutting restructuring plan announced earlier this summer by Iowa State University, Ford and her fellow county extension directors from across the state are having their positions eliminated and replaced by regional directors who will serve multiple counties at one time. The impact will be felt across the state.
“Extension partners with numerous organizations in offering programs and services,” Ford said during a recent interview. “I just think it really makes it more difficult for ISU to keep those partnerships within the county. I felt that was my position – to kind of be the face of ISU. I think it’s going to be difficult for ISU to maintain those relationships and programs.”
In Mills County, the elimination of the extension director’s position will mean a significant reduction in school outreach programs and fewer public service and educational opportunities for county residents.
For decades, ISU extension directors have provided support and education to their local communities in five areas – agriculture, business, youth, families and community enhancement – while also overseeing budget and staff management responsibilities.
Ford has worked as Mills County’s extension director since 1999 after spending nearly three years in the office as a part-time program assistant. Prior to that period of time, she was a teacher and stay-at-home mom.
Over the past decade, Ford acknowledges, her duties have evolved with the times.
“Our responsibility was to try to do programming, not just ourselves but involve our field specialists or other experts in those areas by identifying the needs of people in the county and then trying to develop programs that will meet those needs,” she said. “It really has changed over the last 10 years. A lot more people are computer savvy, so there’s a lot more offered in that direction. People aren’t as willing to do face-to-face meetings as they used to be because they’re so busy. But, we still have that audience that needs that. I think the challenge has been getting the education to our clients in a way that they want to receive it.”
Ford said the “million dollar question” across the state centers on the future of county fairs.
“That is going to be a tough one,” Ford said. “The fair board is probably going to have to take on more responsibility in some areas, or the 4-H superintendents and 4-H leaders.”
The elimination of the director’s position doesn’t mean the Mills County Extension Office is closing. Susan Perkins will stay on as a full-time office assistant, Denise Fikes as a horticulture assistant and Stephanie Bowden as the new 4-H youth coordinator.
“The extension council is deciding on what direction to go and what are the county’s areas of greatest need,” Ford said.
Ford’s enjoyed serving the public during her tenure at the extension office and is undecided on her next endeavor, although substitute teaching is an immediate possibility.
“It’s been very rewarding to work with the people throughout the county and help them come together and problem-solve,” Ford said. “I think the basic desire of everyone is to improve their lives in some way. By getting education to them or getting people to work together has been very rewarding.
“Working with the youth has always been rewarding to me, too – helping them to develop their skills so hopefully they feel connected to their communities. They understand community service and citizenship and they understand they can be leaders. Those are the people that we’re counting on in the future.”