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Budget cuts force reduced hours at Nassau extension

Master gardener volunteers maintain the CCE display vegetable

Master gardener volunteers maintain the CCE display vegetable garden for visitors in Eisenhower Park last year. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr., File, 2010

The Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Nassau County has been hit hard by county budget cuts. Can't say I didn't see this coming, but it's incredibly unfortunate. As a result, effective June 1, the extension office and walk-in help desk in Eisenhower Park will only be open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. for counter diagnostic and soil test visits, and the phone hotline for gardening questions also will only be manned during those hours. 

Keep in mind that those services are provided by unpaid master gardener volunteers, but the paid workforce has been cut, including head honcho Ralph Tuttle, who has a wealth of knowledge and expertise to offer the public. 

The extreme severity of the legislature's reduction to CCE's funding will have a devastating impact on its ability to provide programs and services to residents.

Cooperative extensions have roots that date to the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. In 1862, Lincoln signed the Morrill Land-Grant College Act, which essentially was a farm-grant program since the country was mostly agricultural in those days. The act granted to each state 30,000 acres of public land for each of its senators and representatives. Not for them, personally, it's just that that's how they calculated how much to give each state.
The states were to sell the land and invest the proceeds in a perpetual endowment that would support the creation of colleges in each state that would educate people in agriculture and mechanical arts.

Those colleges would be called federal land-grant colleges, and they're still around. In New York, it's Cornell.

In 1972, agents in the Washington state system began training volunteers to answer questions from home gardeners, free of charge. The notion caught on, and the master gardener program was born.

I'm a master gardener myself, and I've spent more than 150 hours volunteering for the extension, some of them in the Eisenhower Park office. I can attest the CCE has not been living high on the hog. It has that no-frills public office feel, with bare-bones metal desks and no air conditioning in summer. And yet, it provided an amazing public service, much of it administered by volunteers who man the phones, test soil and provide walk-in counter service to residents seeking identification of plant diseases, insects and advice on a host of other concerns.

In addition, the CCE also runs the 4H Youth Development program, which provides clubs, summer camps and after school programs for kids. When it began, the service helped homemakers by teaching them how to sew, how to can fruits and vegetables, and how to budget their household expenditures. Today, it holds energy conservation and financial management workshops, consumer education programs, and food and nutrition education programs that enable low-income families to make significant improvements in their diets and food practices and help them on the path toward self-sufficiency. These are services that really don't cost very much to provide, and which aren't available anywhere else.

If you need gardening help, you still can call or visit the office in Eisenhower Park during the new, abbreviated scheduled hours of operation. It's attached to the green houses just inside the Hempstead Turnpike entrance. Pass the second brick building and follow the tiny red sign to Cornell. The helpline number is 516-228-0426.

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