Winter 1989 // Volume 27 // Number 4 // To The Point // 4TP1

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No Time To Be Timid


Rachael B. Tompkins
Associate Vice-President and
Director, West Virginia

Boldness, vision, and risk-taking are the most frequently used words in Extension today. Extension leaders announce bold, risk-taking programs of great vision even when we're pouring old wine into a shiny new bottle. The Extension initiatives, the Futures Report, the changes in Extension Service-USDA and in ECOP, the advent of issues programming are bold strides; however, there's more work to do.

One of today's bold ideas is to extend the knowledge of the entire land-grant university, not just the knowledge in Colleges of Agriculture. This isn't a new idea, but it's clear that Extension hasn't yet successfully organized itself to extend such a broad array of knowledge.

Usually when discussions are held about extending the knowledge of the entire land-grant university, the conversations shift quickly away from agriculture as though the knowledge of the College of Agriculture is sufficient to deal with the needs of American agriculture. The implication is that only family, youth, and community programs require the rest of the university. University-wide Extension has become a code phrase for doing less in agriculture. We in research and Extension leadership have allowed conversations about extending the entire university to degenerate into the tiresome "being all-things-to-all-people" debates or ideological fights about social programs or the conundrum of academic reward systems. In this article, I want to keep the focus squarely on agriculture and the land-grant university. In so doing, I want to make six points important to successful Extension work now and forward to 2015.

Point 1

Extension can't serve American agriculture, let alone America, with relevant research-based knowledge and technology transfer using only the resources of Colleges of Agriculture as they're currently structured.

In biology and the life sciences, a revolution has occurred since I was trained 20 years ago. Molecular biology, recombinant DNA, and the miracles of genetic changes have forever altered the scientific base of agriculture. Food safety, environmental protection, low input agriculture, and new uses of agricultural products are critical topics for research. The research base for these areas today often resides in Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Changes in international trade and financing and American agriculture's lack of competitiveness require a research base in business, trade, international studies, economics, and demography. This base often resides in Colleges of Arts and Sciences and Business. Policy issues related to agricultural subsidies and rural development investment are debated. Rural community leaders seek knowledge on diversifying the local economy, planning widely for development, or preserving resources. Often social science disciplines in colleges other than agriculture are needed for the research base on these policy and planning issues.

Whether the agricultural audience defined is large commercial agriculture or family farmers who gross under $100,000 a year or agribusiness or food processing, a successful Extension network requires the broader research base. While seeking additional resources for this task, such as the recent National Initiative on agricultural research, is wise, I believe land-grant universities should reallocate existing resources. Ken Farrell, vice-president for Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of California, made the point very well in recent remarks to the American Agricultural Economics Association Annual Meeting:

As long as we continue to ask for incremental increases in funding without demonstrating our willingness and ability to redirect base resources, our credibility and success in the legislatures and with our public in general will continue to erode.

Point 2

Agricultural Experiment Stations don't provide a research base that's sufficient to support Extension work in agriculture.

Experiment Stations seem never to have supported an adequate research base in home economics and youth development, and today I don't think it can be expected. That's a problem I won't address here.

In agricultural research, the Experiment Stations did for some time provide the base. Today, the feedback loop from Extension to research isn't sufficiently strong, and disciplinary demands for research publications sometimes lead research faculty to focus on matters more important to the discipline than to farmers. While more research/Extension joint appointments and greater competition for Experiment Station funds may help achieve more integration of issues between the world and the university, I suspect more drastic measures are required. Farrell supports restructuring within Colleges of Agriculture to broaden the base, but he stopped short of what he called the "heresy" of spending Experiment Station funds in colleges other than agriculture. I don't stop short of that heresy.

Point 3

Extension initiatives related to agriculture will necessitate the spending of Smith-Lever funds in colleges other than agriculture.

The National Initiatives of competitiveness in agriculture, alternative agricultural opportunities, water quality, and conservation and management of natural resources will each require specialist support not now available in most Colleges of Agriculture. While restructuring efforts in Colleges of Agriculture that will broaden the faculty base should be supported, Extension directors can't and probably won't wait around until sufficient faculty members die or retire to make such changes easy. We'll use Smith-Lever dollars to support environmental scientists in Colleges of Engineering or Medicine, and marketing and finance faculty in Colleges of Business.

We've taught our clients that land-grant research and Extension are synonymous with the College of Agriculture. That political support is important, but eroding, and it will continue to slip away because the plain fact is we can't serve our traditional agricultural clients well unless we connect them with more of the university. Many of them know that. While quality Extension programs with youth, family, and community may expand our political support base, we can't hang onto our traditional political support unless we change our ways.

Point 4

County Extension agents need disciplinary expertise related to the economic and social structure of the area they service. Maintaining the county base is important for some Extension programs, but maintaining the county agricultural agent in every county isn't essential.

Agriculture in West Virginia is a small but important part of our economy. Wood products and forestry is a growing part of the economy thanks in part to strong forestry Extension programs offered primarily by specialists. Agriculture in West Virginia would probably be better served than it is now in terms of the latest technology and marketing know-how by a dozen regional agents with expertise relevant to specific products or functions. Instead, we have 55 counties and 30 county agricultural agents. Even though some counties have only three or eight farms, it was only in a 1986 restructuring that we eliminated the requirement for an agricultural degree in those 25 counties. In some states, where agriculture is a far more important part of the economy, a county agricultural agent, indeed multiple agents in agriculture, may be essential.

In each county, regardless of the disciplinary expertise a person has, someone on the staff needs to manage, organize, and broker educational programs across an array of issues. I'm not at all convinced that this county faculty member needs a Ph.D. in anything. As you can see, I come down firmly on all sides of the appropriate county or multicounty staffing pattern that leads me to believe we need to continue to experiment and adapt in each state and evaluate as we go.

Point 5

Extension must focus on its educational mission. Youth development agents are properly criticized for spending too much time managing events. EFNEP has recently been criticized by the Users Advisory Board for being a service rather than an educational program. The fact is that service related to fairs, livestock sales, and individual farmer visits takes huge blocks of time from agricultural agents. I don't understand the EFNEP criticism because no program has clearer evidence of educational goals being accomplished. I doubt most fairs, festivals, and sales can show much educational value for anyone. Political goodwill, yes, but not educational payoff.

Point 6

Extension work in American agriculture in the next 25 years will require substantial county staff retooling.

The system I've described of a broader research and Extension specialist base in issues important to agriculture will require county and multicounty staff to have knowledge and skill they don't now have. Just as my 1965 degree in biology and chemistry leaves me light years behind, so too do animal science and agricultural education degrees of the same vintage leave our county faculty not well-equipped for the needs of American agriculture today. Those of us who received degrees in the 1960s are in our mid-forties with 20 more years likely in the system. Retooling is a major task, one that might be facilitated by 10-month appointments.

Some ideas shared in these remarks are considered heresy. Even if acknowledge privately, they're not discussed publicly. If we're timid, whole new agencies, institutes, and extension systems will be created by the federal government and by land-grant universities to do what we can do better.