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Native becomes new extension agent

December 03, 1996

By LISA GRAYBEAL

Staff Writer

Monday was Jeff Semler's first day on the job as Washington County's Cooperative Extension Service agent. But he's by no means new to the office, the occupation, or its responsibilities.

"This is where I wanted to end up. It took eight years, but it finally happened," Semler said, sitting among stacks of unpacked boxes in his tiny new office.

Semler replaced retired agent Norris Diefenderfer, who had held the job for 23 years before retiring on Dec. 31, 1995.

A native of Washington County, Semler has come full circle back to his home and the extension office where he once interned as a student at West Virginia University. He went on to get his master's degree in animal science from University of Connecticut and was hired as an extension agent in Berkeley County, W.Va. In 1988, Semler worked his way back into Maryland by taking a job as agent in Baltimore County and most recently in Harford County.

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Now back on home turf, Semler has new ideas for his post that has been redesigned to put the word `extension' back into practice. Formerly a position solely in charge of the county's 4-H programs, the new job description allows about a third of the time for "adult audience," which includes setting up educational programs and reaching out to the public.

"We really have to look at how we develop the county, especially long term," Semler said. "The extension service needs to get involved in public policy."

Though he originally wanted to milk cows for a living, having worked on his aunt and uncle's farm growing up, Semler decided later he could have more impact as an extension service agent and still work closely with the dairy industry. Now he has the chance to become a voice in the county's future planning in terms of land use, natural resources and soil conservation.

"Land use is an issue near and dear to my heart because I'm a native," Semler said. "What do we do when the green space is gone? Black top doesn't absorb any rain. These kinds of things need to be taken into consideration."

Semler is familiar with both sides of the controversy surrounding encroaching development on the county's farms, and he believes most of the problems can be worked out by simple communication. The new agent plans to help the process along by becoming a liaison between the farmers and the newcomers moving in.

"There's got to be a happy medium somewhere - a common ground," said Semler. "The big challenge for the farming community is to reach out to the suburbanites. Like it or not they're going to be the policy makers. On the other side, nobody thinks about where their food comes from. We need to educate everyone as much as we can."

Semler said he encourages agriculture education programs in the schools and wants to help implement specialty workshops, like water quality work, in the classroom.

The rest of Semler's time will be spent working with 4-H youth, which is no foreign assignment. Semler has been involved in the county's 4-H program most of his life. As assistant dairy cattle judging coach, he helped take last year's team to national championships at the World Dairy Expo in Wisconsin and to the Royal Highland Show in Scotland last June. He is also the dairy show superintendent for the Maryland State Fair.

Semler lives with his wife of 14 years, Kerri, and has two daughters, Jessica, 11 and Kayla, 8.

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