Cooperative Extension Service agents in Baltimore County help keep the city's water supply clean. They advise people about how to handle debt and try to figure out why apple trees aren't producing fruit.
Traditionally the farmer's adviser, the agent now has a broader ,, role. And the role must continue to change as the world moves into the 21st century, agriculture experts said yesterday.
"We must reach out to a more diverse audience," said Zerle E. Carpenter, director of the Texas Agricultural Extension Service.
Urban dwellers and people who own land but farm mainly on weekends are demanding more help from the Extension Service, he said.
About 1,300 agents from around the country met this week at the Baltimore Convention Center for the 78th annual National Association of County Agricultural Agents meeting.
Yesterday, a four-member panel discussed how the Extension Service must change to meet its clients' needs in the future.
"Extension will be part of the 21st century" -- only about 6 1/2 years away -- said Richard E. Rominger, deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Agents must continue to use all available computer and electronic technology to get information out to residents on topics ranging from the best way to feed a dairy cow to proper nutrition for a senior citizen, he said.
Agents are using this technology to help people who lost their homes and farms in recent floods in the Midwest, he said. They are advising residents on water and food safety, managing stress and filling out insurance forms.
"This system makes us the envy of the world," Mr. Rominger said.
In Maryland, the Extension Service is part of the University of Maryland and has at least one agent in every county and the city. It makes about 2 million contacts a year with residents, fiscal officer Fred Vaughan said.
The Extension Service has a $25.4 million budget and 446 employees in the current fiscal year, he said.
Dick Curran, extension director in Baltimore County, said his office and others around the state already have made changes to serve clients other than the traditional farmer.
Baltimore County agents spend a lot of time working on environmental issues, he said. Agents work on projects to ensure that the county's three reservoirs, which provide city water, remain clean, he said.
They do this by working with county government departments that handle water-quality projects and with farmers to reduce the amount of pesticide and fertilizer that runs off into streams, he said.
The Baltimore County office also advises many residents who operate small farms of 10 to 15 acres, Mr. Curran said. These farmers work in the city during the day and come home to raise horses, fruit trees or beef cattle, he said.
Many extension offices employ financial counselors who train volunteers to help residents deal with credit card and other debt, Mr. Curran said.
"These are steps into the future," Mr. Rominger said.
Extension Service agents must continue to keep pace with the changing world, said Mr. Carpenter.
"We should honor and cherish our traditions," he said. "And we should be proponents of progress."