URI hires new Cooperative Extension leader on 100th anniversary of program

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KINGSTON, R.I. – April 8, 2014 – One hundred years ago next month, Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act to establish Cooperative Extension offices at all land grant universities in the country to help Americans improve their circumstances by applying university research to their daily lives. It’s a program that today provides the University of Rhode Island with about $1.5 million in annual funding and provides outreach programming to more than 50,000 Rhode Islanders each year.

URI hired a new director of Cooperative Extension in February to bring visibility to the program and ensure that as many Rhode Islanders benefit from URI research as possible.

“Cooperative Extension is the formal outreach arm of the University, and it’s designed to deliver science-based information to people in such a way that they can actually apply this knowledge to make better choices or change their behavior,” said Deborah Sheely, of Wakefield, who left a position as a senior administrator at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to direct URI’s Cooperative Extension. “Historically it focused on agriculture, home economics and rural energy, but it has grown to include a focus on youth development, community development and other topics as well.”

Cooperative Extension at the University of Rhode Island continues to provide guidance to the agriculture industry in the state by, for instance, helping small farmers improve their practices, advising fruit growers on pest and disease management, and supporting the research needs of the turf industry. But at URI it also includes statewide nutrition education programs for low-income and elderly households, youth leadership development through the 4-H program, and water quality monitoring through Watershed Watch, among many others.

Perhaps the most visible Cooperative Extension initiative is the URI Master Gardener Program, which since 1977 has trained more than 2,700 residents to be expert gardeners and to share their knowledge of sustainable gardening practices in their communities. Approximately 500 URI Master Gardeners actively volunteer their time each year answering gardening questions from the public, building and maintaining community gardens, harvesting crops for food pantries, and conducting tests of new plants.

“We’re already doing some fabulous outreach work here, but I believe that Cooperative Extension can have an even greater impact in the state,” Sheely said. “I’m talking to faculty and staff to find out what we do better than anyone else so we can continue to invest in those programs; identifying low-impact programs that should perhaps be a lower priority; and identifying stakeholder needs that are ripe for new opportunities.”

She also intends to meet with stakeholder groups over the next several months to hear directly from them about their needs.

Sheely, whose husband leads Cooperative Extension at the University of Connecticut, earned a doctorate in plant biology at Rutgers University and spent two years with the U.S. Agency for International Development. She then worked her way up the ladder at the USDA, culminating with one of the top jobs at the Department’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), where she administered nearly $500 million in funding for research and Cooperative Extension nationwide.

She said that experience will provide great benefits to URI.

“I understand how federal funding agencies operate, and I know how NIFA works because I was in a leadership role for NIFA for a long time,” Sheely said. “It’s my intent to use that knowledge to help URI become more successful at getting federal grants. I’ll be looking at how we can raise the visibility and impact of Cooperative Extension in Rhode Island, how we can add more value to the state and help to bring in more dollars so we can do more good work.”

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