LANCASTER, Pa. — For evidence of the re-organization at Penn State Extension, Stephanie Shirk’s office is a good place to look.
Shirk is in her second week working for Extension, and there’s an orderly, not-yet-lived-in feel to her corner of the Lancaster Farm and Home Center.
The furniture is all in place, but the Penn State posters won’t get hung on the wall until the painters come.
State Extension director Dennis Calvin announced in April that the statewide system would be consolidating from 20 districts to 10 areas.
Instead of being run by a single district manager, each area will be headed by a customer relations manager and a business operations manager.
Shirk, a veteran of ag communications, is the customer relations manager for Area 9, which includes Berks, Chester, Lancaster, Lebanon and Schuylkill counties.
She will build ties with stakeholders inside and outside agriculture.
Her business operations counterpart, Greg Gnatt, will oversee the finances, administration and human resources for the area’s five county offices.
Gnatt is currently the district director for Berks and Schuylkill counties and will continue to be based in Berks County.
Shirk will be based in Lancaster, but “the reality of it is we’ll be traveling around pretty much every day,” Gnatt said.
Helping them work through the transition is Leon Ressler, the district director for Lancaster, Lebanon and Chester counties.
Ressler will become an agronomy educator when the new positions become effective in July.
The leadership changes are intended to improve Extension’s efficiency and stakeholder relationships.
Farmers won’t see much of a change in their local educators’ responsibilities.
Gnatt, Ressler and Shirk agree that the transition is going well so far.
Each took a different path to their new roles.
Shirk grew up on a Nebraska dairy farm but moved to Pennsylvania when her father became the general manager of Dietrich’s Milk Products in Reading.
Shirk worked for New Holland Agriculture and the Pennsylvania FFA Foundation, and did freelance work before coming to Extension.
Shirk and her husband live on a bicentennial farm in eastern Lancaster County. Their teenage children are excited about agriculture.
Shirk’s job is to build the relationships between Extension and stakeholders, including ag groups like local Farm Bureaus and Granges, and county-level groups like the Lancaster County Agriculture Council and the Berks Agricultural Resource Network.
County commissioners are a particularly important constituency for Extension. Counties provide office space and a sizable chunk of Extension’s funding.
“Without our county support, why, we couldn’t really function,” Ressler said.
Extension also helps the county and its residents through its educational expertise.
Ressler, for example, gave a presentation to the Lancaster County commissioners this week highlighting Extension’s Lyme disease resources.
High tick populations could make the disease particularly problematic this year.
Gnatt got his undergraduate degree in horticulture at Penn State. While getting his master’s of business administration, he helped the College of Agricultural Sciences roll out its first email system and get comfortable with personal computers.
Then IBM called. “It was an offer a young college graduate just couldn’t turn down,” Gnatt said.
Over three decades at the company, Gnatt served as a connection between the company’s tech teams and its clients.
He also managed some large accounts, which gave him financial experience.
“It made for perfect skills for the district director position,” Gnatt said.
While working for IBM in Mechanicsburg, Gnatt became an Extension master gardener. He has spent the past two and a half years as the Berks-Schuylkill district director.
A big part of Gnatt’s new job will be standardizing operations across the five county offices.
Each of the 67 county Extension offices currently operates more or less as an independent business unit. There’s room to get more efficient, Gnatt said.
Bookkeeping responsibilities, for example, could be centralized, potentially even shifted to University Park.
Gnatt said he may also be able to relieve educators of some of their paperwork burden, giving them more time to interact with the public.
Gnatt is not planning to re-organize the county office staffs as part of the efficiency push.
When he becomes an educator, Ressler will be returning to the role he left in 2001 when he moved into management at Extension.
His agronomy educator position will be focused on improving water quality, especially on small farms.
“I’m going back to where I came from, and that feels pretty good,” Ressler said.
He was offered the customer relations position but declined because it would have involved too much travel.
He lives near the Maryland line in Lancaster County, so visiting the farther reaches of Berks and Schuylkill counties would have been a four-hour round trip.
Gnatt, whose main office is in Leesport, will be more centrally located.
Ressler said he will finally get back to doing something he missed as district director — helping individual farmers solve problems.
“The farmers will see a lot more of me, which is one of the attractions of making that decision,” Ressler said.
The last time around, he taught farmers about composting, groundwater policy, water rights and nutrient management.
In the years since he became a district director, Ressler has watched farmers become more receptive to conservation practices like streambank fencing, no-till and cover crops.
Technological improvements and education overcame farmers’ skepticism, he said.
Ressler will work closely with the county conservation district to help farmers with water quality.
The details are still being worked out, but as part of Extension, he won’t have the enforcement role that the district has.
Ressler will continue to produce the Now Is the Time column in Lancaster Farming.
For a video about the new area managers, go to http://bit.ly/ExtensionArea9.