OTISVILLE—The Cornell Cooperative Extension Orange County, which helped give birth to 4-H in New York around the beginning of the 20th century, has now given the youth development organization a new, 21st century home.
The Education Center and 4-H Park in Otisville opened on July 22 with a ribbon cutting ceremony that kicked off a week-long series of events.
According to the Center’s executive director, Lucy Joyce, the new complex was originally seen as a safe place for 4-H kids to show their projects and engage in activities, events, and competitions. “From this it grew into a fully-grown community development project. There will be much more than 4-H here.”
The extension found itself outgrowing its facilities as demand for its programs was growing says Executive Administrator Peggy Kral. “We were renting this space and renting this space. Financially, it was beginning to be a very high cost for us because most of our programs are either free or very low cost.” So the education center and park began to take shape.
Ground-breaking for the complex began a year ago, according to project manager Stan Spencer. Spencer, Bob Waltenberg, and Mike Fox have overseen completion of phase one. Waltenberg says this phase put the finishing touches to site work, basic infrastructure, and building prep for the property.
The structures completed so far cover about six acres of the 54 acre-site which is leased from the Town of Mt. Hope. There are facilities for car shows, gardening events, yard sales, and more. He and his colleagues are using the first phase as a way to learn what they did right and where they can improve.
Perhaps best known for its livestock shows, often held at county fairs, 4-H partners young people with adults who mentor them in experiential learning. The organization is sponsored by University extensions around the United States and aims to develop character and independence through hands-on projects.
The Orange County Extension brought 4-H to life in New York almost 100 years ago. When Cornell extension agents visited local farms, “they found out that kids on the farm needed something to do besides farming.” Kids were proud of the animals they were raising. They started showing their animals. “It got kids involved,” Kral said. “4-H is part of Cornell.”
Today, there are over 110 4-H clubs in the county, which have 800 volunteers and about 8000 young people involved. According to the 4-H website, nationally the organization has a “network of more than 6 million youth, 611,800 volunteers, 3,500 professionals, and more than 25 million alumni.”
The extension does educational outreach for the residents of Orange County in three major areas: family consumer science—some may remember it as Home Ec—4-H and agriculture, and youth development. Their youth development programs are some of the largest in the state.
The extension serves farms of all sizes. “We are looking at all the farmers,” Kral says, “whether it’s your large farm or your small farm. We’re looking at the next generation because the next generation is not getting involved. We are also having an influx of city folk coming to Orange County to open up a gentleman’s farm. It’s a very mixed clientele.”
Agricultural programs are key to the Extension’s mission. Maire Ullrich, vegetable specialist at the extension, says agriculture brings in somewhere between $100 to $300 million in revenue to Orange County. This includes not only the farms themselves but the packaging and processing facilities that bring agricultural products to the consumer.
With the Orange County Department of Health, the extension received a $100,000 investment to form the Healthy Orange Farm to School Program. This program connects schools with local farmers, expands and strengthens community partnerships and school-based nutrition education programs, and streamlines bidding and procurement processes, according the extension’s annual report.
Their farm-to-school project matches farmers with school districts. The extension shows school districts what’s available, how to get it, what’s reasonable to expect, or how to ask for it from the regular purveyors. The next step is to tell the purveyors how to get it directly from the farmers so “the pickup truck can come to the back door.”
The extension encourages school gardens, to make them part of the curriculum, and get what’s grown into the school kitchen.
Extension agents work with farmers to grow quality produce in the county. Onions are big, according to Ullrich, as the sixth largest producer in the country. Pumpkins, both ornamental and eating, also produce significant revenue.
Dairy farms in Orange County account for nearly half the open space that tourists love in Orange County. Dairy farms depend heavily upon what the milk prices are in any given year. Ullrich says it’s impressive that there are still 43 dairy farms in Orange County considering its proximity to New York City.
Kral credits the entire Orange County community for making the project come together for the ribbon-cutting event. “We did not think we would get this far so fast.”
Spencer says the project to date would have come to $800,000 without generous grants and donations that have come in. He estimates out-of-pocket costs to date to be about $400,000.
Kral says the extension funds come from all government levels. According to the extension’s 2014 annual report, the Orange County Legislature provides 45 percent of revenue, the state puts in 22 percent, grants and contracts add another 9 percent, while the remaining revenue is generated from other operating income. The extension uses 84 percent of its revenue for programs.
The nonprofit applies for grants from several federal agencies—including the USDA, and Administration on Aging of the Department of Health and Human Services. The extension was recently awarded a federal grant of $1.1 million for EatSmartNY, which it had already been doing on a much smaller scale.
The Orange County Legislative Office funds $3.6 million to support the extension’s programs. Two years ago the extension estimated what it had saved the county to show the dollars were well-spent.
County Executive Steven Neuhaus participated in the ribbon-cutting and expressed his support of the extension. “Cornell Cooperative Extension of Orange County does an outstanding job with educating the youth of our county on the importance of agriculture, farming, and sustainable living. The new center in Mount Hope will provide state-of-the-art educational opportunities for the youth of Orange County. We certainly value the partnership we have developed with the Cornell Cooperative Extension.”
Spencer sees the complex as something for the whole community. “This project is not just a 4-H project. This project is a community project, even an Orange County project.”
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