The Benewah County Extension Office has exploded with new staff, programs, and activities in recent years. Extension Educator Gail Silkwood said the move to a larger office space was the catalyst for the expansion. “I told the Benewah Board of County Commissioners that with the bigger space we would be able to do more,” she said. “We have definitely done that! We have now added the UpRiver Afterschool program, Ignite Your Spark STEM education days and camps, increased our 4-H program enrollment by more than double and been able to provide even more trainings and outreach within our county and across the Pacific Northwest.” Originally housed in the basement of the courthouse, the extension office moved into the second-floor space of the county building, located at the corner of 7th Street and Jefferson Avenue, in 2019. The office now offers 10 programs run by 14 staff members. The very first extension office is believed to have started with F.I. Rockwell in 1918. Mrs. Silkwood is serving as the 17th educator since then. Extension offices were started informally in the 1800s when the Midwest farming industry began reporting and sharing their experiences. In 1914 a congressional act formally created a partnership between USDA and landgrant universities to provide research and education for rural and agricultural issues across the country. As each University developed their programs, they created local offices that were tasked with taking the research done at the University to the people in the local county and needs or questions from the local county to the university for further research. The office’s largest program, 4-H, was a precursor of the extension office. It began in the late 1800s when researchers discovered that it was easier to teach youth new ways of farming and food preservation and youth could then teach the adults. “This was the foothold of our practical hands-on education that 4-H is still based upon today,” Mrs. Silkwood said. The first 4-H clubs were created in 1902 in Ohio and were known as Tomato and Corn clubs or Corn and Canning Clubs. In 1924, 4-H was formalized into the foundation of what it is today and adopted by the USDA. Currently we have just under 200 youth and 38 adult volunteers enrolled in the Benewah County 4-H program. It is one of their oldest, if not the longest running program and definitely the most popular of the extension programs in the county. The 4-H programs are funded through registration fees and fundraisers. “I believe that it is the most popular because it is such a great place for youth to learn life skills, create lasting friendships, travel across the region, state and nation all while in a safe place with caring adults,” Mrs. Silkwood said. The second most popular program is the Ignite Your Spark program serving over 1500 contact hours with youth through out-of-school camps and afterschool programs. Their third most popular program is the Idaho Master Gardener program, where volunteers work with the community to assist them in identifying plants, disease or insects in home gardens and lawns. The most recent addition to the office’s program offerings is the Master Food Safety and Preservation program led by Polly Grasham. “Food Safety and Preservation programs help families understand how to safely preserve and store their food sources to save food supplies and provide nutritious and delicious meals all year round,” Mrs. Silkwood said. Traditionally extension offices nationwide have supported the growing and preserving of food. However, in the Benewah office this topic has not been able to be a focus because of lack of staff with knowledge in that area. “In the last few years, we have received many calls regarding preserving and preparing foods safely, but we have had to rely on educators from other counties to provide that education,” Mrs. Silkwood said. “This is very difficult, due to their programs being their priority.” The Benewah office was able to secure enough funding to support a volunteer traveling to Boundary County to receive the necessary training. “We feel it will be of great assistance in our county,” Mrs. Silkwood said. “We would love to find enough funding to have a part-time extension position for this topic, but at this time it is not available.” Meanwhile the office is available to answer questions about food preservation and offers free testing of pressure canning equipment. “Gauges need to be tested every year to make sure that they are accurate,” Mrs. Silkwood said. The program began this year and is runled by Mrs. Grasham, who received her Master Food Safety Advisor certification this spring after 7 weeks of classes. The office plans to offer classes on safe food preservation this summer. Other programming offered through the office includes forestry (Idaho Master Forest Stewards), agriculture, natural resources, community development and mental health. “Community Development is so important to the success and future of our county,” Mrs. Silkwood said. “There are several Extension programs that help a community see where they are or find new areas to flourish.” Previously the office has offered classes to help local entrepreneurs grow their businesses, helped the farmer’s market with a rapid market assessment, and partnered in grant opportunities. “Mental health programming increases our community’s outreach, assistance and understanding,” Mrs. Silkwood said. “The opportunity for certification in mental health programming came about in late 2020. We all know that this is a growing need across our nation and is very important to the success of our families and communities, so when the opportunity was offered, we took advantage of it.” Mrs. Silkwood is certified to teach mental health first aid classes and offers them for adults, youth (adults that work with youth) and local EMS, fire, and law enforcement agencies. She said that she wants people to know that the extension office does more than just 4-H and is here to help the community thrive. It is a treasure-trove of information on a variety of subjects. “We are informally known as the 4-H office, but we can offer the community so much more,” she said. “Stop in and visit with us, explore our library, utilize our conference room, or if you have a question, let us know and we will do our best to answer it.” While they will do their best to help there are some things the office cannot do. “Two areas we often get questions about are veterinary related for animals and chemical weed control product or services,” Mrs. Silkwood said. “We can help with some animal nutrition or health questions, but specific or emergency veterinary questions need to be answered by a veterinary professional. We do not have chemical weed control and are not able to come spray private property. We can however provide information about best practices for controlling specific plants on your property.” Funding for the extension office and its programs is multi-faceted. Some comes from Congress, the state legislature, the county and through grants, gifts and program registration fees. As with any community program, volunteers and funding are always needed. “We like to tell youth that if they can dream it, we can make it a 4-H project, but that means that when they come up with those projects, we need volunteers willing to help lead them,” Mrs. Silkwood said. Most of the extension office’s programs are volunteer based. People willing to share their knowledge and/ or lead youth in activities are encouraged to contact the office. “Without people and funding, we can’t make these programs happen in our community,” Mrs. Silkwood said. “We will continue to offer diverse programming and as much of it as the county, or each of our communities need that we can figure out how to fund, staff and plan into each day of the year,” Mrs. Silkwood said. There are University of Idaho Extension Offices in 42 of the 44 counties, 3 federally recognized tribal programs and 14 research and extension centers across the state of Idaho.

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