Spring 1993 // Volume 31 // Number 1 // To The Point // 1TP2

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Linking Agriculture with the People

Extension agents represent more than the food-producing disciplines. Public policy issues will be in the forefront. Downsizing Extension may be a fact of life. ...without a link to the people, universities can't serve them.

William C. Kelly
President, National Association of County Agricultural Agents
County Extension Director
Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania

How will the agriculture Extension agent justify his or her position in the future? The role of the Extension agent has been to extend the land grant university to the people. Because this task has been mastered over the years, Extension is acclaimed as one of the most effective informal educational systems in the world, sought after and copied by many.

Today's question is how can we ask the taxpayer to provide support for a system that serves only 1.7% of the people, the food-producing sector of our nation? A simple answer is that county or regional Extension agents represent more than the food- producing disciplines of the agriculture colleges of our universities. Extension agents must demonstrate to the people that their role is to make the information resources of the land grant colleges available to all people and seek answers for problems that may well entail working with other colleges within the university system.

Public policy issues will be in the forefront, particularly as they relate to the effect food production has on the environment. The role agriculture plays in world politics and the impact agriculture has on the economy is certainly exhibited in today's current events. Producers must know more about world marketing. Consumers should be more concerned about the cost of food as environmental constraints, such as limiting land use or pesticide applications, are applied.

Advances in communication technologies mean Extension now has competitors in the private sector who can transmit information to every nook and cranny of the land. But those same competitors must have a source of credible, research-based information, which Extension can provide.

Downsizing Extension may be a fact of life. It will, however, be the task of administration to ensure that available Extension personnel are strategically located. The land grant system was built on communication with the people; communication that was brought from the university by Extension agents and relayed back to resident and research staff by the university- based specialists. We'll need to maintain the links in that chain more than ever in the future. If we're meeting the people's information needs, they'll respond to the legislators for the financial support to maintain the system.

How this is accomplished will vary. Extension administrators will be experimenting to find the best way in their respective states. Situations are different, people are different, times change. Extension survival depends on leaders that will change to meet the challenges. At issue is how change will be implemented. Extension has learned and teaches that change is brought about through teamwork and communication. Field staff, university faculty, and administration will need to visit, respect each other's role, and assess the needs of the clientele and what resources are available to meet those needs. As it should be, it will always be a matter of fine-tuning the programs to maintain Extension's credibility.

One thing is certain-without a link to the people, universities can't serve them. Extension and the field agents, whether they be in multicounty units, clusters with specialized staff, or county units, must develop programs that meet the needs of the people with relevant supporting research.