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Extension agents Richard Fechter, left and Ben Allen discuss the coordination of Extension activities in Elk and Chautauqua counties which now comprise the Rolling Prairie District.

Partnering to preserve their heritage and enhance educational services, K-State Research and Extension in Chautauqua and Elk counties is now operating as a unified entity—the Rolling Prairie Extension District.

Officially, the change took place last summer after a process which created a new board consisting of four members from each county and changed the way Extension is funded in the counties.

Previously, the local portion of Extension funding in each county was appropriated by county commissioners. Now, the district develops a budget in the same manner as provided by law applying to other taxing subdivisions, by making an annual tax levy for the purpose of raising funds to conduct the Extension educational program in the district.

That change has not made a significant difference in the amount of dollars residents of the two counties will invest in Extension but Rolling Prairie Director Richard Fechter, who previously served as Elk County’s Extension director, believes districting paves the way for a stronger Extension presence.

“Basically, we have pooled our resources to maintain an Extension program in these counties,” he explains. “Initially, there won’t be big changes in our day-to-day operation but it does give us opportunities to be more efficient and to even improve services.”

One of the immediate examples of that is found in the 4-H program, according to Ben Allen, Rolling Prairie agent and formerly Chautauqua County’s agricultural and 4-H agent.

“We’re going to see more opportunities in the 4-H program,” Allen says. “Separately, neither county had been able to put together a shooting sports program, for example. Now, as a district, we have established good one. By putting the counties together, we have enough 4-Hers and instructors to do something we hadn’t been able to do separately.”

When the idea of districting came up, the very first question from most folks in both counties was whether or not the merger would have any effect on their respective county fairs.

“Fairs are run by county fair boards and districting has no effect on that,” Fechter answers. “Most people won’t see a lot of changes as a result of districting. There is still an office in Sedan and an office in Howard. People can still talk to their county agent.

“Hopefully, though, as we progress, we’ll become more and more efficient.”

Rolling Prairie is the eighth Ex-tension district formed in Kansas and 23 counties are now operating under various district configurations. The districting option, made possible by a 1991 law en-acted by the state legislature, was de-veloped as a means of dealing with budget shortfalls and changing demographics in the state.

Elk and Chautauqua, for example, are two of the lowest valuation counties in Kansas and a lack of funds threatened Extension programs in both counties. On the other hand, as rural counties with relatively low populations, residents of the counties don’t have access to many programs and services available in more heavily populated counties, making Extension an even more important resource.

For the two counties, the process began about three years ago with informal conversations. Ultimately, the concept was approved by each county Extension board, the county commissioners in each county, the K-State director of Extension and, finally, the state attorney general.

Board members for the Rolling Prairie District are Becky Williams, Edwin Bowman, Rolan Leniton, Jim Bruner, Caryl Barnaby, Dale Clubine, John Griesel and Velva Hoyt.

Allen and Fechter continue to maintain their respective offices and operate in much the same way they always have. There have been opportunities to coordinate efforts, though, and the partnership will continue to evolve.

Both agents feel the new arrangement is a good fit. The agronomic and livestock production challenges faced by producers in both counties are essentially the same, as are the economic development issues for communities.

And even though both are agricultural agents who have dealt with very similar issues in their respective counties, districting will allow them to become more focused.

“We all tend to specialize somewhat,” Allen says. “We all have certain areas we’re strongest in and, as this develops, we may be able to concentrate more on those areas and become an even better resource for the people of Elk and Chautauqua counties.”

Both agents say the merged Extension effort has been well received by the people in their counties and the endeavor has allowed for continuity in serving agricultural producers.

The most important factor, however, is that K-State Research and Extension will continue to be an asset to the people of Elk and Chautauqua counties.

“This is a good way to hold on to what we have and, hopefully, make it better,” Allen observes. “The budget pressure we face is just a sign of the times but there’s nothing magic about that line between the two counties and there’s no reason why we can’t make this approach work. We’ve always worked together and from the standpoint of farmers and ranchers, this is a way to continue to serve them.”

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