Is Extension Extinction Underway?
"It allowed me to narrow my focus and learn new things in my specialty area, and that was exciting," recalled Craig. "Unfortunately, it also affected local support in some counties. It's hard to get support for a position when the person travels outside the county. You had to get support from multiple county governments."
Such regionalization and the challenge that goes with it is now more the norm around the country as few, traditional, “generalist” county agents remain in place. This could be seen as a slippery slope. In Pennsylvania, the nine-county group grew to cover 15 counties and eventually the entire state.
"In Pennsylvania and I'm sure in others as well, the traditional state Extension specialist with an appointment in research has been reassigned to teach college courses," explained Craig. "We now serve in their place."
ENTERING THE DIGITAL AGE
Paul Craig [left], Extension program leader in Pennsylvania, assists Johnny Whiddon, a county agent, in a peach orchard. Blaine Viator, president, National Alliance of Independent Crop Consultants (NAICC), said when the subject of changes in Extension and the challenges it faces comes up, fellow NAICC members respond passionately and often with widely differing views depending on the individual's experience with their state's Extension Service.
"Having been in the university system, obtaining a doctoral degree and then entering the private sector as a private consultant, I guess I have seen it from both sides of the picture," said Viator.
Viator misses the old days of well-funded state and county Extension educators based on strong university research. However, he also recognizes and endorses the value of specialization such as he has seen develop in other states that have shifted to the regional specialist approach.
"Most of my clients are on smartphones and social media," he said. "They could be receiving Extension recommendations directly from state or regional specialists. Ten or 20 years ago, you had to drive to every farm to talk to the farmer. That's no longer the case."
"The foundation of strong Extension relies on a very robust university research program," added Viator. "Without very sound and progressive university research, Extension will have a tough road ahead. As certified independent consultants, we are only paid by the grower, and none of our income comes from selling products or seed. We rely very heavily on university research and Extension to get the best, unbiased information to our growers. Extension is important to us and our grower-clients, but it seems the non-farming public is more interested in their tax dollars being used to support social programs rather than agronomic research and Extension, as evident in farm bill funding. So, it is looking more and more like public sector funding for research and Extension will only continue to dwindle. Its success will depend on doing more with less people.”