Pa. extension educator’s firing draws backlash from farmers

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SALEM, Ohio – Last fall it was probation for Don Hunter, the Washington County, Pa., extension livestock educator.
Now he’s fired.
Producers in the three counties that fell under his wings – Washington, Greene and Fayette – are furious at Penn State University for taking away their educator.
And Hunter says officials fired him for doing what he did best – working, hands-on, with farmers and for farmers.
Reasoning. Don Hunter blames his dismissal on a personality conflict with his supervisor and a difference of opinion with Penn State Cooperative Extension on how he should spend his time.
Hunter says he had different priorities than his supervisor, county extension director Lee Young.
“I guess they just didn’t appreciate my emphasis as far as setting up programs instead of concentrating on the paperwork,” Hunter said.
Penn State Extension mandates filing written reports to detail program summaries and diversity and affirmative action projects, Hunter said.
He admits he didn’t follow the state’s requested format for filing reports, and didn’t provide the program details the paperwork requested. Still, he doesn’t see his shortcoming on the bureaucratic staircase as a reason to be fired, he says.
Three counties. Hunter’s career with Extension spanned nearly 12 years, beginning in Butler County and continuing with his current responsibilities to livestock producers in Washington, Greene and Fayette counties.
Hunter said the three counties in southwestern Pennsylvania are at the heart of the state’s beef and sheep production.
Washington County is ranked first and Greene County is ranked second in sheep population, he said, and the counties are “up there” in cattle rankings, as well.
Hunter previously worked in the livestock industry for 21 years at firms in Iowa and Oregon.
Necessary. Washington County Extension director Lee Young confirmed Hunter’s dismissal, nothing his last day on the job was April 29.
In a written statement, she described commercial and livestock programs as “critical components” of the county’s extension programming. Young also said the commercial livestock industry is the backbone of agriculture in the county.
“Cooperative Extension will continue to provide timely and high-quality educational programming to commercial and youth livestock audiences,” Young said in the statement.
Young declined further comment, citing Penn State University’s confidential personnel policy. State Extension Director Daney Jackson did not return calls.
Backlog. Hunter had been on probation since September 2004 and was asked to complete specific tasks to keep his job, he said. Extension officials refused to comment on the reasons for Hunter’s probation.
Hunter said he completed those tasks but Penn State was not satisfied with his work. The probation was extended until March 31, 2005. Hunter reworked the reports but was told they still didn’t meet expectations.
He says he was given the chance to resign March 31 or watch his employment be terminated April 29.
“I told them I had programs set up and I wasn’t walking out on them. I couldn’t walk out on my commitments to producers,” Hunter said.
He appealed the decision to the state extension appeals board April 27. He received official notice of the denial May 12.
“It’s a real kangaroo court, as far as being there, appealing to the same people who worked to fire me,” Hunter said.
Open ears. Word that Hunter was fired began to circulate in late April, according to Washington County shepherd George Wherry.
Farmers like Wherry started petitions and collected hundreds of signatures calling for Hunter’s reinstatement and Lee Young’s transfer to another county. They also called local, regional and state extension personnel and politicians.
Wherry said the university has ignored those petitions.
“I gather it all fell on deaf ears,” Wherry said.
“This is a grievous injustice to all agriculture in the area,” Wherry said, noting Hunter always had time to spend with farmers and coordinated activities to keep them at the top of the game.
Wherry said he, like many other producers in the tri-county area, built a friendship with Hunter based on a mutual interest in farming and livestock.
“It’s a tragedy for him to leave us,” Wherry said, citing the recent retirement of Mercer Co. Extension specialist Bob Calvert and other educators as additional reason for concern.
“Who will be there to help us?” Wherry wonders.
Committed. Hunter, who tends his own flock of sheep in Mercer County, was known for traveling to Washington, 80 miles one way, at the beginning of the workweek and not returning to his own farm until the following weekend.
Throughout the week, he’d meet with farmers and 4-H’ers in the three counties to assist them with livestock. The meetings often happened after work hours, Hunter says.
“[Young and extension] micromanage you for coming in a few hours late, but when you’re at a meeting until 10, 10:30 at night, it sounds like you’re on your own. If you’re not there at 9 a.m. [the next morning] they’re watching the clock for you,” Hunter said.
“There is a big difference in priorities here. They work for reports, I worked for the people,” Hunter said.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at amyers@farmanddairy.com.)

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