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Cultivating Community Vitality: Reflections from Northern California

By jenjensen | December 17, 2014

By Holly George, County Department Head & Livestock/Natural Resources Advisor, University of California Cooperative Extension Plumas-Sierra Counties

The Extension Reconsidered blog features posts from guest contributors who care about Cooperative Extension, the land-grant mission, community arts and humanities, civic engagement, and other issues related to the Extension Reconsidered initiative.

After 30+ years on the job, I feel Cooperative Extension can make the most impact by embracing the community development component of our jobs and stepping out of the safe box of academia. Many people associated with land grant systems are comfortable with biological and environmental sciences but shy away from social science.

Holly George at a ranch in northeastern California. Image provided by the author.

Holly George at a ranch in northeastern California. Image provided by the author.

I was no different when I started with University of California Cooperative Extension as the first female Livestock, Natural Resources Farm Advisor in 1983 in two Bay Area counties. I liked working with livestock, and being outdoors and providing informal education appealed to me. I almost didn’t apply for that first job as “land use” was part of the job title. I was an animal science major with an agriculture teaching degree who knew a bit about range and pasture management, but land use policy sounded messy and unrelated to my studies.

I quickly learned that some of those “messy” topics (land use, water quantity and quality, public lands management, economic viability, etc.) are the weak links in the livelihood of my primary clientele.

The challenges that these topics represent are excellent opportunities for Cooperative Extension to practice civic engagement. We can bring people together to learn about and make decisions together about our communities, and help facilitate greater understanding among diverse audiences. I believe that this kind of work will contribute to better policies for our primary clientele & the resources they steward.

After working in two urban counties, I’ve spent most of my career in two rural northeastern California counties. We face many of the same natural resources and “commons” issues as others across the West. This region is predominately public lands with US Forest Service being the largest land manager in the area. There used to be lots of lumber mills; but now there is only one. Agriculture (pasture and range for cattle and hay production) covers most of the private land. We are at the headwaters of and provide over 25% of the water for the State Water Project. We have the largest alpine valley in the lower 48 states with amazing wildlife habitat. It is a beautiful part of the state, but a tough place to make a living.

It is also a geographically isolated place, and that makes it hard to have your voice heard. Over the course of my career, I have explored different ways to bring people together and help them share their stories across the challenges of distance and ideology.

Extension as a People Connector

The reality of my job is that while I am a Livestock-Natural Resources Advisor, I’m not the one managing the herds or owning the conserved lands myself. I work with the people who manage the livestock and natural resources. Thus I need diverse people and social science skills to be an effective “change agent”.

A few years ago, I collaborated with jesikah maria ross, a multi-media artist from Davis, California, who at the time was director of UC Davis Art of Regional Change. Jesikah was developing “Passion for the Land a multimedia project to help rural residents share their stories about preserving community heritage while protecting agricultural lands and natural resources for future generations.

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Her work is an example of how a place-based Cooperative Extension advisor (me) tapped into artistic and technology resources to amplify the voices of 12 rural residents ranging in age from 24 to 84. A rancher challenged me to create one, so I did: Keeping People on the Land.

These personal digital stories, many with a ”call to action” targeted at decision makers and the voting public, have been shared with diverse audiences. For example:

  1. The Plumas County Planning Commission viewed Passion for the Land during one of their meetings and subsequently added optional Agriculture & Water Elements to the County General Plan Update.
  2. At the California Preservation Conference, we used Passion for the Land stories to remind people that preservation efforts might want to be expanded to include policies that support people involved in working landscapes (versus the traditional mode of preservation, which is saving a piece of ground from development or restoring an historic building).
  3. We shared on the Big Screen at the local movie theater including public Q&A with stories tellers as well as at the County Fair, conferences, schools, service group meetings.

Since then, Extension colleagues asked for help to do something similar in their areas. In response, jesikah and I created the Toolkit for Change, part facilitation guide and part training guide, which uses personal stories to help sustain working landscapes and rural communities. Extension Rangeland Watershed Specialist Ken Tate supported our effort by writing the preface. I subsequently taught digital storytelling to senior agriculture communication students at Chico State University and have helped other agriculture/natural resource professionals. Extension can help rural residents share their stories.

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Connecting Art, Culture, and Agriculture

John Muir said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread.” I see lots of natural connections between culture and agriculture. Planting a seed, cultivating, reaping what you sow—both farmer and artist share these activities. Both are independent, hard-working, passionate, and creative people. Have you ever seen what a rancher can do with baling wire and duct tape?

Last year, I added a new word to my vocabulary and hopefully it will soon be in yours. ”Cultureshed” is a term coined in 1988 by Jay Salinas, co-founder of Wisconsin’s Wormfarm Institute. It extrapolates from watershed (a region linked by its surface waters) and from foodshed (a more recent term describing an area that seeks to become nutritionally self-sufficient). I like it.

Cultureshed (n.): 1. A geographic region irrigated by streams of local talent and fed by deep pools of human and natural history. 2. An area nourished by what is cultivated locally. 3. The efforts of writers, performers, visual artists, scholars, farmers, and chefs who contribute to a vital and diverse local culture.

Food Education Agriculture Solutions Together (FEAST) participants enjoy a locally sourced meal at an October 2014 event hosted by Plumas-Sierra Community Food Council. Image provided by the author.

Food Education Agriculture Solutions Together (FEAST) participants enjoy a locally sourced meal at an October 2014 event hosted by Plumas-Sierra Community Food Council. Image provided by the author.

Similar to the French term terrior, it conveys the belief that an authentic, compelling culture arises from the particular microclimate, geography and population of a place. Cultureshed lifts up the idea that by nurturing a healthy culture, we build more vibrant, resilient and thriving places.

In my day-to-day work, I’ve seen how art and culture can nourish the economic (and in our case agricultural) life of a place, and vice versa. For years I’ve worked in “Agriculture & Nature Tourism”, and I am currently chair of California Extension’s Agritourism workgroup. Years ago, I attended the Carson Valley Eagles and Agriculture event. The connection between arts, natural resources and agriculture inspired me to work with local ranchers, the Audubon Society, and other organizations to create a daylong event in our own community called Barns, Birds and Barbeque. The objective was to showcase ranch stewardship, build relationships between ranchers and Audubon, plus put a face to the people in agriculture.

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The success of these fun and informational events has grown into a series of local informal dinners in the barn and the Feather River Land Trust hosting a “Birds, Boats and BBQ” event on properties they own. Today, we even have a Tour De Manure bike race that benefits the local fire department.

Joining the “Creative Place Making” Movement

At Cooperative Extension, sound science is our core. I value accurate content; but I also care about process and presentation. I like to collaborate with colleagues who challenge the status quo way of doing things and inspire me to explore different ways of engaging clientele, policy makers, and the public. I see art and culture as a proven way to build relationships that lead to positive changes for the people and resources in the communities where I work and beyond.

It doesn’t matter that until recently I didn’t feel comfortable calling myself an artist. I can’t draw like Gail or sing like Sarah, but, like many of you, I’m a creative person in my own way. I love fiber arts and woodworking, and these are my own personal links to understanding the creativity, fresh ideas, and open-mindedness that arts and culture can offer each of us.

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Part of my 2013 sabbatical leave was exploring vibrant rural communities. I wanted to improve my ability at connecting people and building bridges (relationships) among agriCULTURE, arts, local food and recreation so residents understand, appreciate and support the diverse contributions of each to the other.

“Creative place making” is a relatively new term used to describe arts and the role artists play in helping to shape a community’s social, economic and physical future. The activities and strategies are arts-based while the outcomes are intended to be placed-based.

This September, I attended the Cross-Currents: Art+Agriculture Powering Rural Economies Conference in Greensboro, NC. A few Extension colleagues attended this “creative place making” event. I’d encourage more Extension folks to participate in conferences like this. Push your comfort zone, explore opportunities to incorporate more creativity and engage diverse audiences to help you be better change agents.

Yes, California is in a drought and I’m working on environmental regulations. But a recent, less contentious effort I’ve undertaken is the called the Lost Sierra Community Collaboration bringing diverse members in my rural counties together to focus on positive possibilities aimed at accomplishing something together that is more than any of us can do working alone. Multi-generational ranchers, local businesses, beginning market gardeners, Arts Commission, Land Trust and Tourism folks are Building Bridges Among Ag, Art, Local Food and Recreation aimed at Improved Vitality for Residents and Visitors in Plumas and Sierra Counties. I am happy with the progress we’re making and excited the Arts Commission decided to have their 2016 calendar be the Faces and Places of Local Agriculture.

We are building community.

As trusted network weavers, Cooperative Extension can help individuals and groups in growing a sense of unity and pride for this place we all call home. We want local residents to thrive, and we want to encourage innovation in our rural economies. Then, together we can expand authentic tourism experiences for visitors to our unique part of the world…sharing glimpses of who we are, where we live and why we care.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2015 from Holly George in northeastern California. Image provided by the author.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2015 from Holly George in northeastern California. Image provided by the author.

Opinions presented on the Extension Reconsidered blog belong to the authors. Contact Jen Jensen (jkj37[at]cornell.edu) to contribute, or comment here to share your thoughts. Follow @extrecon on Twitter for blog updates or read more about the Extension Reconsidered initiative at our website.