Published on 06/22/16

New Atlanta-area coordinator for UGA Cooperative Extension arms people with the services they need

By Merritt Melancon

There’s a growing hunger in the Atlanta region for locally grown food, greener gardens, healthier lifestyles and information that makes life simpler.

The good news is that these are all things that the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension has been providing the metro Atlanta area for years. The bad news, according to UGA Cooperative Extension’s new Atlanta-region Extension coordinator Jeff Miller, is that very few people know that the resources they need to live a greener, simpler life are available at their local UGA Extension office.

Miller is tasked with organizing the efforts of 18 Agriculture and Natural Resources, 4-H, and Family and Consumer Sciences agents in multiple counties, including their work with other Atlanta-area advocacy groups.

UGA Extension agents are already delivering the content that metro residents want and need, Miller said. He just wants to help them reach more people with that information.

“We’ve got the programming,” Miller explained. “My job is all about collaboration, cooperation and increasing capacity. Those are my roles.”

No stranger to UGA Extension, Miller’s father was Georgia’s first Extension specialist for weeds in the 1960s and 1970s. Miller himself earned a bachelor’s degree in animal and plant science from UGA and a master’s degree in crop science from North Carolina State University before serving as the Agriculture and Natural Resources agent in Gwinnett County, Georgia, between 1987 and 1991.

Collaboration and cooperation are vital in helping UGA Extension reach more of the metro area’s audience. With 18 agents serving five counties, the ratio of agents to residents is about one to 200,000. Those are not great odds for individual outreach, but we have to reach more residents, Miller said.

“Half of the population is here in Atlanta,” he said. “Here, we’re looking at Gwinnett, Clayton, Cobb, Fulton and DeKalb counties.

There are 3.5 million people in these counties, and there are only 10 million residents in the state.”

If Extension isn’t reaching the third of the state population living in Atlanta, it’s not serving all of Georgia, said Greg Price, director of county operations for UGA Extension.

There will never be a time when the ratio of county agents to residents in the Atlanta area reaches the one to 5,500 ratio in Washington County, Georgia, or even the one to 20,000 ratio in Elbert County, Georgia. UGA Extension needs a different set of tools in the Atlanta region to fulfill its mission, Price said.

“Miller is helping us redefine how we are going to address the needs of the Atlanta region and urban Extension moving forward with the understanding that the ratio of agent to audience there will always be larger than we would like,” Price said.

While the county delivery system — in which each county is served by a team of agents tasked with learning about and meeting the needs of that county — is paramount for UGA Extension, there are times when agents could collaborate on programs to streamline their efforts, he said. By packaging five county programs into one organized, regional effort, we can better leverage the large collaborators and media partners needed to make a larger impact.

“Cooperation involves looking for shared programming opportunities when counties’ needs overlap,” Miller said. “Collaboration involves working with advocacy groups already active in Atlanta.

“Agents are already doing this, but we want to support more of this kind of work. Often you get so busy taking care of your county that the networking and bridge-building it takes to get collaborations off the ground takes a backseat to what you need to do today.”

Not in a managerial role, Miller was hired to support agents in making connections. He’s also tasked with increasing capacity by pinpointing populations that are being underserved and finding ways to include them in UGA Extension programming. This includes young urban families who may have never heard of Cooperative Extension, as well as newly arrived Asian and Hispanic families.

To that end, Miller is reaching out to community leaders across the five-county area to let them know of services provided by UGA Extension. He shares the feedback from those community leaders with county agents and Extension program development coordinators.

“UGA Extension has always worked by fostering partnerships with the communities it serves — whether in downtown Cordele or downtown Decatur,” said Laura Perry Johnson, director of UGA Extension in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. “Our agents work to serve the changing needs and interests of Georgians throughout the state, and with Jeff in the Atlanta-region coordinator’s position, we will be able to better serve the state’s growing urban and suburban populations.”

For more information about Miller’s new role and how UGA Extension is helping to strengthen its presence in the Atlanta area, visit the UGA Extension Metro Atlanta Facebook page.

Merritt Melancon is a public relations manager with UGA's Terry College of Business and previously served as a public relations coordinator for the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and UGA Extension.

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