col Tough times on farm are felt by Extension
Iowa dairy farmers are dealing with the closing of Iowa State University's dairy farm and the Minnesota Extension Service is undergoing its second transformation in as many years.
The changes reflect new realities. The decision to close the Ames facility was based on the added cost of manure disposal, growing urbanization around the farm and expenses associated with hiring university staff to operate it. Iowa producers want Catherine Woteki to commit to building a new dairy center near Ames and she recently made that commitment to them.
The Minnesota Extension Service's predicament is far more difficult. Faced with a state funding decline of 10 percent, or about $2.5 million, Extension dean and director Charles Casey is moving the organization toward a more regional approach.
About 18 to 22 regional Extension centers will be established across the state based on criteria selected by the organization. Among the factors is a nearby affiliation with the University of Minnesota.
Counties will have more freedom to chose from a menu of services provided by state Extension. County commissioners, operating under tight budget constraints, can decide which programs to fund based on need. Extension will also charge participation fees, although Casey points out that participants won't be turned away if they can't afford to pay.
Some counties can choose not to participate in Extension, which is a possibility. Others may identify specific needs within the county and purchase Extension Service programs. They can also partner with other governmental units or non-profits within communities.
The bottom line is satellite Extension offices will be funded by counties to deliver county-based programs.
Casey's proposal isn't risk-free. The competition among communities and counties for regional centers may sour the losers on Extension.
It has placed Extension employees in a particularly difficult spot -- many are in limbo, not knowing if they will work out of regional centers or find continued employment within counties. Two years ago, many skilled Extension employees moved to new opportunities within the organization and others got outside jobs as staff reductions occurred.
Extension faces significant challenges as it strives to remain relevant in the 21st century. People who have participated in public discussions about Extension and its priorities have made it clear the organization is important to them. 4-H involvement in rural and urban Minnesota remains strong.
Iowa Extension has taken its share of funding hits, too. Questions have been raised about its continued ability to deliver services to customers. Research-based land-grant initiatives have had to make adjustments. Minnesota's research and outreach centers have seen budgets slashed and positions lost.
These are difficult times. Hopefully, Extension and public land-grant research will emerge from the budget crisis to be more responsive to farmers and rural residents. When better budget times return, Extension must work with lawmakers to ensure reasonable funding.