Jade-green corn stalks waved gently in the hot summer breeze. Standing in front of the maturing corn, agricultural expert J. Michael Henry spoke enthusiastically about the good feelings one gets in tilling the soil and making things grow.
A summer scene in the Midwest farm belt?
Hardly. This tranquil farm setting was in mid-city Anaheim, a few hundred yards from bumper-to-bumper traffic on Harbor Boulevard and about a mile north of Disneyland. But unlike the make-believe world of the nearby Magic Kingdom, the farm that Mike Henry stood in was very real: It is used daily by about 50 Orange County urban residents eager to have a garden plot.
The land for urban gardeners is one of scores of services provided by the Orange County office of the University of California Cooperative Extension--a little-known agency headed by Henry.
This year, the office almost had to close when it was threatened with the total loss of its county funds. But last week, the Board of Supervisors decided to overrule its own staff and continue to supply $226,000 in annual funds for the office.
While the cooperative extension is hardly a household word, Henry said it has a strong constituency in Orange County because it also gives agricultural advice to full-time farmers and growers. And even though Orange County now seems predominantly urban, farming is still big business. Agriculture was a $245-million industry in Orange County last year.
Henry acknowledged that as Orange County has changed from a sleepy farming area to a bustling network of cities, the identity of the cooperative extension office has faded. "We often find that new residents, coming here from big farm states, know more about cooperative extension than do people who've grown up in Orange County." Henry said.
Cooperative extension is a federally mandated program of the U. S. Department of Agriculture and the major public service program of the University of California.
"It (cooperative extension) is a teaching and education arm of UC, and our purpose is to bring new research and technology from the campuses and see that it's put into practical use by the people in the counties," Henry explained.
The activities in the Anaheim cooperative extension office range from 4-H Club work with youngsters to research of plants and chemicals.
For example, when a homeowner brought in a dying branch of his apricot tree earlier this week, "I told him that the tree had an infection, and I gave him a pamphlet on how to get rid of the problem," Henry said, pointing to the apricot-tree specimen.
Harry Otto, one of the 21 employees of the Orange County office of the agency, reviewed color slides of tests made of varieties of snap beans grown in the county.
"See this snap bean on the right?" Otto said. "See how much fresher it looks than the beans on the left? Well, we've found that this variety of snap bean on the right has a longer shelf life. It lasts longer and stays greener when it's sold fresh."
Otto noted that snap beans are a very big crop in Orange County. "This county is the leading snap bean county in the state," he said.
Henry said that while the UC system pays his salary and that of 13 other extension office employees, county government must provide the funding for operation of the office and for salaries of the seven others on the office staff. Without county funding, Henry said, the
office would have to close.
Two county residents who were glad that the office didn't close were Daniel G. Aldrich Jr. of Laguna Niguel and Jerome Sanders of Santa Ana.
Aldrich was the founding chancellor of UC Irvine, its chief executive for 22 years, until retiring in 1984. Aldrich is also a farm expert. He was dean of the University of California systemwide Division of Agriculture Services from 1958 to 1963. That division includes supervision of all the UC offices of cooperative extension.
"The cooperative extension is the vehicle of the university to transfer considerable research information from the university to the people," Aldrich said. "Furthermore, cooperative extension allows problems in a county to be identified and to be moved back to the university for more research and information.
"The information is not just for agriculture per se. It's for people with gardens and people landscaping their homes. Much of the information is about nutrition, such as how to provide good nutrition in low-income areas," he explained.
Sanders, who is a state-licensed agricultural pest-control adviser, said he was also pleased that the county decided to save the cooperative extension office.
"In my business, I have to stay informed about the changes going on in pesticide research. The cooperative extension office provides me with this information. The office is simply indispensable. I've been using it for about the past 12 years."
"The cooperative extension is so important to so many people in this county that I wonder why the county ever considered not funding it," Sanders said.
County officials said that a move was made to take funds away from the cooperative because administrators were under orders to cut the county budget. But Supervisor Thomas F. Riley said Monday that he led the effort to restore the cooperative extenion money "because I think the work they do for agriculture is tremendous."
Riley added that at the Aug. 9 meeting of the Board of Supervisors, he will move to have the cooperative extension office transferred from the county Community Services Agency to the county's Agriculture Commission. He said he thinks that cooperative extension will fare better at annual budget reviews under the Agriculture Commission.
Henry said he was pleased by Riley's efforts, adding that he hopes cooperative extension no longer will face life-or-death budget dilemmas.
"In dollar revenue, we bring a lot to this county," Henry said. "The county has to pay about $250,000, but our total program represents about $750,000." The remaining money, Henry said, comes from UC and federal agricultural funds.
Riley, who represents much of south Orange County, added: "I think this agency provides something important. Agriculture is still important in our county. Why, did you know they're serving our asparagus in France?"
HOW TO GET FREE HELP
The county office of the UC Cooperative Extension invites county residents to visit and get free help with plant or tree problems.
The office is in Anaheim, about a mile north of the Disneyland entrance. Free parking is available. Office hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mondays through Fridays.
Residents with problem flora should bring both the sick and dead part of the plant, preferably kept cool in a plastic bag.
Because staffing is limited, the office does not encourage phone inquiries. However, residents can obtain phone numbers for a new taped-message machine called TeleTip. Subjects range from "Choosing a Child-Care Facility" to "Fertilizing Citrus Trees."
To get the TeleTip brochure, mail a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Cooperative Extension-Orange County, 1000 S. Harbor Blvd., Anaheim, Calif. 92805. A free catalogue of publications for sale is also available.