We've all heard the news and the headlines: “Virginia Cooperative Extension Services Facing Restructuring” … “Proposal Cuts $2 Million From University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.” When Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber proposed cutting the Oregon State University Extension service by 18.8 percent in 2011, it was on top of a cut of 14 percent the previous biennium.
Extension services around the country have been under budget pressure for years. Reductions in funding from the traditional tripartite base of federal, state and county support has forced restructuring, layoffs and office closures. The President's 2013 budget calls for a reduction in federal spending for Extension services of only $12.7 million in Extension-only funding; however, other funding of combined Extension, education and research also faces proposed cuts. That's not good, but it could likely get worse. The Ryan budget endorsed by the House of Representatives would slash discretionary spending, which accounts for virtually all Extension funding, by 50 percent over 10 years.
Combine these scenarios with state and local budget woes and state Extension services may be facing extinction. One reason is the only thing left to cut is workers.
FACING BUDGET PRESSURES
"Here in Pennsylvania, our administration would tell you almost 95 percent of our budget is people," said Paul Craig, Extension program leader, crop management team. "You can't cut back on other costs, and our budgets aren't keeping up today."
Craig is also the president of the National Association of County Agricultural Agents. In the past 10 years, membership has fallen from 3,200 to 2,100 as states have adapted to the new realities of budget cuts and a changing clientele. As farm size and farmer sophistication have changed, so has demand for services.
"In 2000, the farmers and agricultural industry in the state told the administration that they wanted more specialized knowledge from Extension," explained Craig.
Pennsylvania responded by setting up regional teams. Extension educators from nine counties were made part of groups, with each member taking on a particular area of expertise. Craig became the forage specialist with others taking on crops, plant nutrition, grain and pest management. Dairy and horticulture teams were also set up by region. Each Extension agent retained county duties as well; however, now they also traveled to other counties in their group.
"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
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.”
SOLID THIRD-PARTY DATA
Adapting and evolving in response to change has kept Bob Nielsen, Extension corn specialist and professor, Agronomy, Purdue University, effective, relevant and busy. "I know I'm not perfect, but I get enough feedback from my clientele that tells me I'm doing something right," said Nielsen.
In his career at Purdue, Nielsen has heard the charge that Extension is too slow to endorse new technologies and products, or that Extension is no longer as needed as it once was, given the information available from private sources of consultants, ag retailer sales agronomists, manufacturer reps and the Internet. He easily responds to the criticism.
"We believe the agronomic values of new technologies should be based on hard data that demonstrate consistent performance over a wide range of growing conditions," he said. "Too many of today's new technologies are adopted as forms of 'crop insurance' with little independent data to back them up."
As to the question of relevance, he cited the voluminous and aggressive marketing of crop inputs. "I believe my farming clientele need independent advice more than ever," said Nielsen.
When faced with a similar “relevance” query, Craig acknowledged that private information sources have multiplied. On the other hand they, even more than he and his counterparts, are specialized and focused, usually on the most valued customers. "They also often look to Extension specialists for training," he noted. "They don't have the time to work with everyone and have to target their high ticket customers. That isn't everyone. I think there is a big enough pie for everyone, and as we increase our knowledge base and specialties, it helps everyone."
BOTH PRIVATE AND PUBLIC INFO NEEDED
Sonny Ramaswamy, director, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA, has no doubt the needs are great enough to more than justify both private and public information providers.
"Having grown up in India, I was a direct beneficiary of American agriculture," said Ramaswamy. "One of the problems today is that people think that Monsanto or Dow or Pioneer has it all figured out. However, private enterprise is there to make money. They'll invest in corn and soybeans, but there are other issues, other endeavors where there isn't any money or not enough money to be made. The public needs to be involved."
Ramaswamy's 32-year career has included stints at Cornell, Michigan State, Mississippi, Kansas and, until recently, Oregon State University. This experience has made him uniquely well suited to oversee the federal role in funding and supporting Extension. It has also made him very, very concerned about people like himself with three or more decades in service to agriculture and nearing retirement.
"We are losing an unbelievable wealth of knowledge as these people leave at a rapid pace," said Ramaswamy. "While age plays a role for many, others are retiring simply because of the negativity they face about the role of the public sector. The continuing downward spiral of funding from federal, state and local sources reinforces those feelings, as retirees are not replaced. There is a sense that the public doesn't believe in investing taxpayer dollars in a program like Extension."
While Ramaswamy does his best to be optimistic, basic concerns come through. "I am concerned that retirement, funding cuts, position eliminations and shoe-stringing along the remaining positions are taking their toll," he said. "I am afraid that for America, there is a serious and detrimental thing waiting to happen. We have choices waiting to be made as a nation. I think we are reaching a tipping point that could destroy this unbelievable institution called Extension."