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Missing our agents

One of the hardest things for a legislative body of any type is facing up to the Law of Unintended Consequences. Briefly stated, that law holds that the actions of people — and especially of government — always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended.

No matter how much we might know about something, the more complex it is, the more perverse we can expect to be the consequences of messing around with it. In the case of something as complex as an entire government agency, having a real, solid understanding of what will be the true effects of change is nearly impossible.

So it is hardly surprising that there has been unexpected fallout for area farmers from the Virginia Extension Service’s decision to offer early-retirement incentives as a budget-cutting measure during a lean fiscal period.

Still, though, the extent of the repercussions seems to have been a surprise to just about everybody. Across the state, 32 Extension agents — and 60 employees of the service, in total — took Virginia up on its offer of a buyout and retired effective July 1, costing the state thousands of years of experience.

In Suffolk, the retirement of 30-year Extension veteran Rexford Cotten has left farmers without anyone to call on closer than Isle of Wight County when they have questions or problems with row crops. Considering the thousands of acres planted in corn, peanuts, soybeans and other crops all over the city, a long-term loss of the support that Extension agents provide could cripple area farmers.

Virginia’s Extension agency is talking about a re-examination of the program’s structure throughout the state. Such a move is worthy of praise in light of the continuing recession and the need to save taxpayers from having to spend money on unnecessary expenses and programs. However, the review should be completed quickly, and it must not ignore the very real needs of farmers, nor the very real fact that they provide a huge portion of Virginia’s economic base.