The Allen County Board of Commissioners approved a $158,000 contract Friday with Purdue Extension Allen County. The money will allow the Extension office to continue providing an ever-expanding list of services to the county, despite ongoing budget restraints and COVID-19 restrictions, Allen County Extension Director James Wolff said, providing an update on some of the office’s newest partnerships and adjustments made amid the pandemic.

“This year (was) obviously an interesting year with COVID, but we continued to provide services and made sure we adjusted to meet the educational needs of the county, and then also doing diagnostics and soil sampling in ways that were safe to the public. We went virtual for a lot of our stuff,” Wolff said.

Wolff said Extension worked closely with local farmers markets this year in order to establish rules and regulations needed to operate safely during the pandemic, ensuring farmers didn’t miss out on the income they rely on making at those markets.

“We developed a partnership with the St. (Joseph) Community Health Foundation and HealthVisions, and we worked to provide double SNAP and WIC dollars at local farmers markets this year,” Wolff said, noting that partnership allowed low-income individuals and families to purchase $40,000 worth of fresh produce from local farmers. “That is just amazing that we’re able to help improve the nutrition and health of people within the community.”

Extension also continued to host several youth activities this summer at Johnnie Mae Farm, an urban farm operated by the City of Fort Wayne and Purdue Extension, providing healthy, affordable food to residents in southeast Fort Wayne, as well as providing educational programs on a variety of topics including nutrition and urban agriculture.

Extension also partners with the Allen County Community Development Corp., a government-owned, nonprofit organization that auctions off vacant lots throughout the county to the public. Buyers of those properties have included people looking to expand their yards, space for kids to play, space for a garden, or even space to build a house or start a business.

Wolff said Extension provides land vouchers in addition to “training people on how to properly use the land that they’re getting. They came out of our program with business plans, so they’re set up to be very successful already, and go out and actually start using these land vouchers. That eliminates one of their hurdles, which is land access with urban agriculture. Then that kind of sets them up for success to really start either producing food within the urban areas and providing healthy, fresh produce, or at least beautifying the area and making it more usable.”

Some of the plans for the auctioned properties Wolff has seen have included community gardens and a flower farm.

He told the commissioners he sees opportunities for urban agriculture continuing to grow in Fort Wayne.

“There’s people that are learning about it, it’s being adopted. A lot of the hurdles with urban ag tend to be some of the zoning-type issues, so we work with planning services … Johnnie Mae Farm is really going to be kind of a demonstration area that we’re working with. We’re also working with the school of education at Purdue Fort Wayne to provide community garden space for some of their programs and help train people there.”

4-H programs are a significant part of Extension’s annual offerings. While this year’s Allen County Fair was closed to the public, 4-H youth were still able to showcase their projects for judging.

“We’re also happy to report with that big event, we did not have any COVID outbreaks trace back to our 4-H events — which is also very exciting that we were able to safely implement a way for them to continue learning,” Wolff said.

With COVID-19 restrictions in place in Indiana, Extension currently has capacity for only about 15 people at its office when doing in-person programming — primarily when working with the Amish population or others without access to electronic devices.

Wolff said Extension is currently looking at ways to adjust to space needs. Currently, four members of the staff that provide Extension’s Healthy Living program are sharing one office.

“We really have no room to expand, and we’re really pushing the boundaries on our space, even providing programs in a normal year,” Wolff said. “… Our Extension board is looking at some strategic planning, trying to figure out ‘What does programming look like?’ even 10-15 years out to know what some of our needs are, what some of our space needs will be, even as we try to add more educators. And, we’re also working with our Master Gardeners, because they have extensive gardens around our office — the most extensive in the state.”

There are currently five Extension educators in Allen County — two for 4-H youth development, two for agriculture and natural resources, and one for health and human sciences. The office used to employ six educators, but one of those positions was cut due to budget constraints. Wolff said requests to add that position back to the budget have been denied in the past.

“There used to be a community development position, which we still feel is very valuable to this community, this county, especially with a lot of the things with the NewAllen Alliance and the focus on job training and things like that,” he said.

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