The Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service is a resource that exists to educate the public on everything from deer biology to pruning roses. Now they have two new people to aid in that mission.

Jessie Furnish and Heath Herje are the new educators for 4-H youth development and agriculture, respectively.

Thousands of Oklahomans use OCES’ diverse services every year, but you might not know that.

“It’s one of the best kept secrets in Oklahoma, and that’s not a good thing,” said Susan Moffat, county extension director.

That’s what Furnish, a recent Kansas State graduate, hopes to tackle. She wants to spread the word through advertising and marketing, so the service can reach more Oklahomans and spread more knowledge.

Furnish said it can be a challenge because the organization uses the vast majority of its funding to create innovative programs and serve the public, leaving little for advertising.

“I don’t know how many times since I’ve been here that I’ve heard that (the extension service) is the biggest secret in town,” Furnish said. “The marketing we do has to be low-end, but hopefully it’ll get the name out there.”

Furnish said it’s not uncommon to see multiple generations of a family engaged in 4-H and believes that’s a testament to the quality programming the service provides.

The program’s roots hark back to the Morrill Act of 1862, signed by Abraham Lincoln, that created the basis for land grant colleges such as Oklahoma A&M, which became Oklahoma State University in 1957. Drawing from OSU’s agriculture and mechanical knowledge pool, the service exists to educate the public in a practical sense, favoring a hands-on approach.

While it originated as a resource for primarily rural residents, offering farmers help with farming techniques and their wives with homemaking tools, it has evolved to meet modern needs and challenges.

Through the years, advancements in farming techniques, gender roles and technology have expanded the organization’s focus and scope to include agriculture, family consumer science, 4-H youth development, horticulture and community development.

“Only 2 to 3 percent of the (state) population is in agriculture,” Furnish said. “So, if we kept it solely as an agriculture-based program, we would probably be nonexistent right now.”

Even as it expands, the extension service still serves the interests of farmers and ranchers through its agricultural department, where the organization’s county office has added a new face. An OSU alum and former USDA employee, Herje has a background in wildlife conservation and land management. The Duncan native’s multifaceted expertise mirrors the challenges Oklahomans face today.

“We have new and innovative ways to do things in agriculture, wildlife and natural resources,” Herje said.

In 2011, Oklahoma experienced the worst drought in more than 70 years. That posed a huge challenge, Herje said, as drought affects everything. Many Oklahomans were forced to sell their cattle and harvests suffered. On top of that, Oklahomans are trending toward using their land in diverse ways, such as wildlife management and recreation. People have a lot of questions, and the Internet at large can’t provide all the answers.

“The landscape is changing and the OSU extension is here to meet the challenge,” Herje said. “We are the voice of the university, and we can put a diversity of information at people’s fingertips. That’s what sets us apart from the USDA.”

Aiding Oklahomans with land use, weather conditions and providing resources for farming and livestock strategies are just part of Herje’s mission, while representing just one department of the agency. Ultimately, the organization’s goal is to be there for Oklahomans.

“All folks have to do is call us,” Herje said. “We’re here to help anyone that needs it.”

Mack Burke 366-3530 mburke@normantranscript.com

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