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Dona Ana County families benefit from 100 years of Cooperative Extension Service

As a young girl growing up on a ranch in Otero County, Martha Oliver Sayles didn?t have access to youth development programs such as 4-H. After graduating from New Mexico State University and returning to the family ranch, she decided to volunteer her time with the Cooperative Extension Service.


Woman stands in front of a fence.
Longtime Dona Ana County resident Martha Sayles of Sayles Quarter Horses knows how important the New Mexico Dona Ana County Cooperative Extension Service office is to the citizens of the region. In 2014, the Cooperative Extension Service is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Smith-Lever Act, which founded the organization. (NMSU photo by Tiffany Acosta)

?There?s no doubt in my mind that 4-H is the very best youth program there is,? Sayles said.

In Otero County, Sayles set up workshops and clinics teaching youth about livestock. She called on staff from NMSU to come in as special speakers.

?I would be called upon to judge contests and the funny thing was many times I would be judging my nieces and nephews, but they knew how tough I was being a horse show judge. So I became more and more involved,? she said.

?The 4-H program is the flagship program of the Cooperative Extension Service not only in New Mexico but nationally,? said Jon C. Boren, associate dean and director of the New Mexico Cooperative Extension Service at NMSU. ?It impacts many youth in Dona Ana County and across the state of New Mexico.?

Sayles and her husband, Danly, moved to Dona Ana County 42 years ago to build a registered quarter horse farm, and she continued to volunteer with the Cooperative Extension Service. The couple continues to raise, train and show horses. As accredited judges in seven different breeds of horses, the couple has judged across the country and globe. But their hearts are still with the youth development programs.

The Smith-Lever Act of 1914 formally established the Cooperative Extension Service. The collaboration between the United States Department of Agriculture, state land-grant universities and counties connect the people of the state, so they can benefit from the science-based knowledge generated at their land-grant university.

?Unfortunately, the best-kept secret is the far-reaching effects of the Cooperative Extension Service for adults and youth. I?m very adamant that we need to keep telling the story of what the programs do for individual lives,? Sayles said.

?We really work hard to bring the information from the university to all parts of the county including Sunland Park, Chaparral, Hatch, everywhere in Dona Ana County,? said Karim Martinez, county program director and home economist.

The NMSU Dona Ana County Cooperative Extension Service office offers a diverse selection of programs focused on topics such as agriculture, natural resources and home economics along with youth, community and economic development. Funding for each Cooperative Extension Service office is split between the county government, the state government and the federal government through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

?By having that funding come from the county, we are focused on serving our county clientele and that means everyone in the county,? Martinez said. ?We really work hard to make sure we are addressing whatever needs are important here in our local area.?

A few of the current issues facing Dona Ana County include the movement toward more school and community gardens along with additional urban agriculture and food safety issues.

?When you look at New Mexico as a whole it?s a fairly rural state, however Bernalillo County, where we have Albuquerque, and Dona Ana County are two of our areas where we have different Extension programs. They are oriented not only to our traditional rural programs but also meeting the needs and mission of more urban-type communities,? Boren said.

?A huge component of Extension really is our volunteers,? Martinez said. ?We could not do what we do without all of our volunteers: 4-H leaders, youth participants, Master Gardeners. We have quite a few volunteers in different program areas.?

?Extension was really founded in agriculture 100 years ago but the real benefit of the Cooperative Extension Service is that we are a grassroots-driven organization,? Boren said. ?We have advisory boards from various stakeholder groups in every one of our 33 counties that provide our faculty in our county Extension offices with input on what programs they most need to better their lives and the communities.?

While living in Dona Ana County, Sayles has served in a variety of areas including as a Dona Ana County Advisory Board member, organizational leader for 4-H, president of the New Mexico Extension and Research Support Council and awards committee chair. She also helped develop the parent leader organization and served as president along with assisting with the guidelines and establishment of the Dona Ana County Ambassador program.

?I believe in Dona Ana County, 4-H has touched the lives of many young people and has benefited the parents as well,? Sayles said.

Working with 4-H programs is a family affair. Sayles said her daughters, Sarah Sayles and Rebekah (Sayles) Bachman, both served as New Mexico State 4-H Ambassadors. They also continue to judge 4-H events.

?The success of the Cooperative Extension Service is really how well we listen to the needs and it?s also directly dependent upon our partnerships,? Boren said. ?Martha Sayles has been a critical partner to the New Mexico Cooperative Extension Service for many years.?