WASHINGTON, April 22, 2015 – University extension offices in the U.S. have provided farmers and ranchers with localized and practical advice to use in their operations for over a century. But in an era where Internet is the first place most folks turn to when they want the facts fast, are extension services still relevant to the agriculture sector?
Sonny Ramaswamy, the administrator for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture – the federal agency that oversees funding for extension programs – says yes.
“I dare say, that extension has been on the leading edge, the cutting edge of technology,” Ramaswamy said in an interview. Extension was one of the first systems to broadcast “relevant” and “timely” agricultural information via radio, he continued, and was in the forefront of using moving films and photography in the early 1900s and television in the 1950s when those media were less commonly employed by information agencies.
After the Internet was developed, extension populated land grant universities’ websites with “depositories” of searchable databases farmers could use to identify pests or learn how to control a specific weed, “long before Google was even thought of,” Ramaswamy said.
Today, extension services gather crowd-sourced best management practices developed by the “the best brains” in agriculture research, digest that information, and make it accessible for everyday producers, he said. And, for the most part, the service is free.
How cooperative extensions – university, state and local partners – relay university research to producers takes different forms in different states. In the past 20 years in particular, many state extension services have moved away from the face-to-face model of outreach that extension has traditionally employed.
The “one extension office per county” system of organization is beginning to be replaced with a network of more specialized staff – a livestock expert, nutritionist or a youth outreach program director, for example – who are based at the university itself, or in regional extension offices that often serve 10 or more counties, or even an entire state.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) is one of the leaders in modernizing its extension’s organization and outreach model. Ronnie Green, vice chancellor for the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at UNL, said farmers can tap the extension’s virtual database for answers instead of interacting directly with specialists or agents on their property or in an office.
“And honestly, (extension is) moving away from the county fair,” Green said. Extension staff once devoted much of their year to preparing and putting on presentations at the county fair, but now, for UNL staff at least, the focus has shifted toward developing smart phone apps that Green says will “deliver a lot more information to a lot more people” in less time and “right to the tractor cab” where farmers need it most.
Iowa farmer and former state extension council member Bill Horan agrees extension’s delivery service needs to evolve to meet modern needs. “No one goes to the extension office to find out what’s wrong with their bushes when you can just go online or make a phone call to the university,” Horan said.
Before digital record keeping was the norm, fully staffed extension offices with stocked libraries were necessary in every county, Horan continued, but not now, when “everything is electronic.”
Horan said the budgets of the 100 county extension offices in Iowa (each county has an office) would be better spent on research at the university, as opposed to county extension staff salaries and keeping the lights on.
Many counties’ budgets, overburdened by unfunded mandates, healthcare and pension obligations, have already cut extension funding, resulting in the closure of local offices. In states like Michigan and Missouri, county cuts to extension have left the states with a markedly smaller and less available staff.
Without county funding, the physical presence of extension services is not felt as readily. “It is important, I think, for the local community to know we are here and that we are open,” Gene Schmitz, livestock specialist for the University of Missouri Extension, said.
Without staff in each county, personal interactions are more difficult, and this is what makes extension “unique,” according to his Mizzou extension colleague Connie Mefford. Missouri invested its federal and state extension dollars into regional specialists after the budgets were slashed to $10,000 per office, the minimum funding allowed under the Smith-Lever Act of 1914.
For Makena Schultz, a leadership and civic engagement educator for Michigan State University Extension, funding cuts have meant fewer staff members with larger jurisdictions. To cover all 83 counties in Michigan, Schultz’s 10-person team travels regularly, but “can’t be everywhere at once,” so they have used online programming to fill the gaps where personal interaction isn’t an option.
Ramaswamy believes there’s still a need for the personal contact extension agents can provide, even in this electronic age, but he says existing funding structures will need to change.
For instance, he suggests, clients could be charged for extension services, or at a minimum, for the travel expenses associated with field visits. Farmers may recognize that extension employees have a deep understanding of current ag research, but “sadly, farmers don’t think they need to pay for extension knowledge,” Ramaswamy argued. They instead seek out and compensate private Certified Crop Advisors and consultants for the same information the extension service offers, he said.
“They (extension agents) have to be able to get out and into the farms, get into the dirt, the soil, the plants,” he said, so funding that supports field visits is crucial. “No amount of drones running around, no amount of social media being posted is going to get you what extension is truly known for; that it’s a trustworthy, unbiased human interface.”
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