ELKHORN — When county fair season rolls around, Chrissy Wen knows it is time for her staff to be in prime condition.
Wen is director of the University of Wisconsin Extension office, which contributes to the county fair by coordinating 4-H clubs, managing livestock and tending to other ongoing needs.
“There’s a million things that need to happen in our office,” Wen said.
This year, the UW Extension staff in Walworth County is facing the challenge of fulfilling its duties at county fair while struggling with its own staff shortages and budget cuts.
The staff has no 4-H coordinator or agricultural educator — both key positions for the services that UW Extension provides to the agricultural community throughout the year.
With the Walworth County Fair just three weeks away, the absence of those key players is looming large.
“Everybody’s been trying to chip in,” Linn 4-H Club leader Donna Kundert said. “We’re just muddling through.”
The UW Extension office has been in transition for a couple of years, ever since state lawmakers imposed a $250 million budget cut on the UW system, which included slashing $3.6 million from extension offices statewide.
In Walworth County, the Elkhorn-based operation has historically included a staff of about 10 people, with programs designed for farmers, farm children, family living, healthy eating and horticulture.
Many county governments have been partners with the state in funding local UW Extension offices. State-imposed limits on county property taxes, however, have made it difficult for counties to replace lost state funding with more local funding.
Earlier this year, Walworth County leaders made a tough decision to keep agriculture education services a priority while trimming spending in horticulture programs for farmers markets and community gardens.
But county officials later ran into state bureaucratic obstacles and found that they could not implement the agriculture education program, either.
State UW Extension administrators withheld funding for the agriculture educator position for several months because of continuing budgetary belt-tightening at the state level.
Sharon Travis, a member of the county’s agriculture and extension committee, said farmers have asked her about the services they are accustomed to getting from the UW Extension.
“I have no answers for them,” Travis said. “I don’t know where to send them.”
The extension’s agriculture educator has historically helped farmers with issues related to crop production, waste management and pesticide treatments.
The 4-H coordinator provides administrative assistance to about 20 clubs throughout the county, including assembling records for county fair competitions that can include hundreds of kids.
The local UW Extension also is currently trying to fill a horticultural educator position that could be part-time, and another staff vacancy for its healthy eating program called FoodWise Nutrition Education.
Matt Hanson, assistant dean of the UW Extension, said many counties throughout the state are in similar predicaments because of the deep spending cuts ordered by state lawmakers.
“It’s tough for all of us,” he said.
Administrators hoped to avoid staff layoffs, but there was not enough natural attrition statewide to free up funding for positions like Walworth County’s agriculture educator.
Hanson visited with Walworth County officials this summer and heard their frustrations about not being able to fill their agriculture position and to restore services for area farmers. State administrators then squeezed out enough funding for Walworth County, provided that the new agriculture educator also serves surrounding counties and becomes a regional resource.
“It’s going to be a win-win for that whole area,” Hanson said.
Wen is taking applications for the agriculture educator position until Aug. 19.
She also expects soon to fill the 4-H coordinator position, although it will not be before the county fair.
Within three or four months, Wen said, she hopes to have the UW Extension locally back to full staff. Some questions remain unanswered, such as how the horticulture educator position will turn out without full funding.
“We have sort of a new model,” she said, referring to the statewide budget cuts. “So we’re exploring what that looks like.”
To help get ready for county fair, the extension office has hired a part-time summer staff person for 4-H club coordination. And an agriculture educator from neighboring Rock County has agreed to come to Elkhorn to help with livestock management at the fair.
Wen said she is confident that her staff and everyone else associated with the fair will get the job done.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the county fair will be spectacular,” she said.
Kundert, whose club includes about 60 kids in the town of Linn area, said she and some of the other experienced club leaders probably need less guidance from UW Extension than newer club leaders.
The absence of the extension’s 4-H coordinator has been noticeably, she said, but hopefully it will not be an issue at fair time.
“Luckily, we have very strong club leaders,” she said. “We’ve just been doing it like we’ve been doing it and doing it.”