• County engagement specialist David Burton shares his screen during an online meeting of the Greene County extension council.
    County engagement specialist David Burton shares his screen during an online meeting of the Greene County extension council.

All over the nation, people are working online. Missouri’s county extension councils are no exception. Quickly adapting to changing needs, these citizen advisers are now holding their monthly meetings by phone and online videoconference to help make sure University of Missouri Extension can continue its local work.

In all 114 counties and the City of St. Louis, extension councils comprising elected, appointed and delegated citizens are important partners in MU’s work across Missouri — figuring out local needs, connecting with community leaders and evaluating the work MU Extension does.

“We’re not going to sit back and let a pandemic slow us down,” said Greg Boehne, chair of the Greene County extension council. “If anything, these unusual times amplify the need for extension and the work we do.” Greene, Putnam, Cooper and Barton counties are among the first councils to make this online transition.

Council members need to approve payments, monitor programs, plan initiatives and help their communities respond to this current crisis, said Machelle Rinehart, Putnam County extension council chair.

“We’re in the midst of so many important things right now: soil testing, planning for the fair in September. It’s so important to keep our counties going and everything up to date, especially for our youths and as we move into planting season,” said Rinehart, whose grandfather served on the council and great-grandmother helped establish the county’s 4-H program many years ago. “I know what a good resource extension is for the community.”

Katie Gadberry, who has served on the Putnam council for four years, said she had never used Zoom before. “But I thought the meeting went really well. We had a great turnout. Some people who usually can’t come were able to.”

That flexibility is something all four counties noted. “We had record attendance,” said David Burton, county engagement specialist in community development in Greene County.

Boehne said this uptick in attendance may prompt exploration of ways to incorporate an optional virtual component to future face-to-face meetings.

Joe Koenen, county engagement specialist in agriculture and environment in Putnam County, said today’s pandemic reaction reminds him of the farm crisis in the 1980s. People are afraid and juggling uncertainty about the long-term impact on their communities and farms while continuing to need credible information about immediate concerns such as fence laws. “The important thing is for us to be here and be available and knowledgeable,” Koenen said.

The dedication and commitment of county extension councils to ensure this work continues is greatly appreciated, said Sarah Traub, MU Extension’s interim director of off-campus operations. “They are integral to helping our faculty and staff see the educational needs in their community and, now, helping spread the word about how we will continue to serve them online.”