By Jesse Wood
The Watauga County Cooperative Extension held its annual “Report to the People” luncheon on Tuesday afternoon in the Agricultural Conference Center.
After a “local-food” lunch prepared by staff, Extension Director Jim Hamilton spoke about the impact that his office has on the county and beyond in the last five years. But before diving too deep into the numbers, he commended his “exceptional staff.”
Hamilton noted that while the extension’s five-year cost to the county is about $1.2 million for salary, benefits and operational costs, the local office had a total economic impact of nearly $3 million, which represents a 150 percent return on investment in the past five years.
This estimate, which Hamilton described as conservative, includes total value of grant dollars that the local extension had a hand in helping local farmers and organizations receive ($918,000); value of volunteer hours contributed through extension events ($178,000 – 17,800 hours of service at $10 per hour); herd loss recovery assistance from livestock program; and direct reported economic impact to farmers and the agricultural economy.
During the past five years, Hamilton estimated the county’s agricultural economy to be north of $10 million, which doesn’t include specialty crops or revenues from the Watauga County Farmers’ Market.
Of the $10-million-plus agricultural economy in the county, $7 million of that is attributed to cattle. Watauga County has 48 livestock producers in the Watauga County Cattlemen’s Association and the annual total county herd size of beef and cow/calf ranges from 4,000 to 8,000. In 2010-11, the extension helped local cattlemen recover $200,000 in herd losses.
Watauga County has 47 active Christmas tree growers in the Watauga County Christmas Tree Association and more than 2,000 acres of Christmas trees in production in the county.
Hamilton noted that 29 choose-and-cut farms sell about 15,000 trees per year and that the choose-and-cut industry in the county has an economic impact of more than $5 million. The extension manages the local choose-and-cut marketing program that has a budget of about $14,000 per year.
In the past five years, Watauga County Cooperative Extension has held 956 meetings, workshops, field days, demonstrations, lectures and programs to more than 31,000 participants. Staff also connected with nearly 200,000 individuals – whether face-to-face, via email, phone calls or newsletters.
Extension provided support to more than 400 individuals on specialty crop production of fruits, vegetables and specialty crops such as mushrooms, ginseng, herbs, micro-greens and more.
More than 1,800 residents participated in canning, cooking, nutrition and food safety courses taught by extension staff.
About 10,000 linear feet of stream banks have been stabilized or enhanced to prevent erosion, and nearly 20,000 pounds of trash was pulled out of the Watauga River through the Big Sweep program.
He also touched on the Master Gardner, Green My Plate Week, Group Feeder Calf Auction, High Country Farm Tour, Operation Medicine Cabinet and 4-H Grow Green and Supper Summer programs.
After a lunch and presentation from Hamilton, Watauga County Commissioner Billy Kennedy piped up and said, “I think y’all are doing a great job.”