WASHINGTON, May 4, 2016 - The story is familiar: There’s less and less state and county funding to keep cooperative extension programs around. But now, with states across the country struggling to pass budget deals, the stakes are higher than ever before.
In Connecticut, the current fiscal year budget deficit is $256 million and the state’s projected deficit for fiscal 2016-17 is hovering around $1 billion. Connecticut’s legislature has yet to balance the budget and the clock is ticking – June 30 marks the expiration of the current budget.
Henry Talmage, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau, told Agri-Pulse that there have been cuts to extension in the past, and more are on their way.
“The first thing that will go is open (extension) positions… They won’t be filled,” he said. The extension offices will be told “to do more with less,” and perhaps, if the state budget cuts are substantial, there could be layoffs, he said.
“You can’t go less than one (employee),” Talmage added. “Then you don’t have a program.” That’s a central struggle for extension programs, he said – they’re small to begin with. Once they lose critical mass, they’re gone.
In Connecticut, extension is funded through the University of Connecticut with matching funds from the state. Most other states receive county funding for extension in addition to university funds and state dollars, but not Connecticut – the state dissolved county governments in 1960. This setup can be pretty limiting, Talmage said, particularly when the state can’t pass or balance a budget.
Gregory Weidemann, the dean of the College of Agriculture at the University of Connecticut, said the cuts – although not finalized – will likely prevent him from filling “critical vacancies.”
“The stories aren’t pretty,” he said. “Every year we have to make cuts.”
It’s possible – with the right messaging and enough political might – to escape some budget cuts, says Mark O’Neill, media and strategic communications director for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.
When Pennsylvania’s budget impasse in March threatened to shut down Pennsylvania State University’s extension program, O’Neill says extension advocates stepped up and reached out to explain how the program benefits farmers and non-farmers alike.
“Extension (research and technical support) always plays a role, every year, all over the place,” he said. Of course local farming is extension supported, but that economic activity bolsters regional economies, he said. Extension research also covers areas of food safety and pest management, which benefit suburban and urban communities, in addition to rural folk.
Increasing the relevance of extension services in the eyes of suburban and urban populations is difficult, especially when outreach budgets are constrained, so extension offices have had to get creative when it comes to communicating their value.
Chris Watkins, director of Cornell University’s cooperative extension, says his program has been exploring how it can utilize smartphones as a way to communicate with clients. It has also stretched its budget by regionalizing services that were once provided on a county-by-county basis, like expert consultations with veterinarians or agronomists.
Spreading resources in this way allows extension to continue offering the services of top-level experts to landowners, which Watkins says “can be more powerful in terms of meeting the needs of the farmer” compared to generalists, or a Google search.
“We just went through the 100-year anniversary of extension in the U.S.,” he continued. “If we want it to exist 100 years from now… it’s going to look a lot different.”
But that doesn’t mean extension won’t continue to emphasize hands-on, experiential learning, he said. One of the hallmarks of extension – face-to-face engagement – is also “a fundamental human need,” Watkins said. “It’s really hard to believe that the future is a place where people don’t learn the most” through that approach.
It’s also hard to imagine American ag without extension.
A recently released Penn State study, authored by Stephan Goetz, a professor of agricultural and regional economics, says that without extension, America would have lost four farmers for every one that left the sector over the last 25 years. That means 137,000 fewer farmers left farming because of extension services.
“If we were to loosely extrapolate this, I would say that extension over its existence has saved over a million farmers – that’s a big number considering we only have 2 million or so left now,” Goetz said in an interview with USDA.
Talmage said that Connecticut has 1,000 more farmers now than recorded in the last USDA Ag Census, taken in 2012. These beginning farmers “are going to need a lot of hand holding,” and extension programs fill that need, he said.
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