Apr 7, 2007
Extension Adapts to New Challenges

This is the first story in a series about the future of Extension.

What does Michigan State University Extension (MSUE) mean to Michigan’s fruit and vegetable industries? It depends upon who you ask.

To Donald Coe, managing partner of Black Star Farms in Leelanau County, Extension is a factor in his company’s community and business decisions. He frequently discusses subjects like agritourism, value-added agriculture, product innovation, farm markets, 4-H clubs, farmland preservation, county planning and governance with Extension personnel. The agency plays less of a role in Black Star’s crop-growing decisions, but Coe still seeks expert advice from the nearby research station, which evaluates wine grape varieties. Black Star Farms includes a winery.

“The strength of Extension is in the depth and breadth of its services to the community,” he said. “You can reach into a grab bag for the services that help you.”

If Extension didn’t play such a pivotal role in nutrition, early childhood development and family services programs, something else would have to fill that void, Coe said.

To Betty Graham, Extension is distant and not much of an influence. She owns a small blueberry farm in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and has only contacted the agency a couple of times. She knows Extension helps other growers, though.

“I know that MSU does a lot of research for farming in general, so I would hate to see the Extension agencies disappear,” she said.

To Ray Pleva, a former grower who created a line of cherry-related health products, Extension brings huge benefits. County Extension directors have to wear a lot of different hats. They deal with new research and new products all the time and have to find ways to communicate those ideas to fruit farmers.

“Up here everybody has to pitch in and work together,” said Pleva, who lives in Traverse City. “No Extension directors are rich. They just hustle like the rest of us.”

If the state ever cut its Extension personnel, that would be a huge mistake, Pleva said.

Phil Carter, an apple and grain corn grower in New Era, uses Extension for apple thinning advice and fruit maturity analyses. He said Extension’s role in Michigan agriculture has diminished in the last decade. The agency needs more funding to compete with commercial companies, which are doing their best to fill the information gap.

“MSUE needs to give better service on a more timely basis,” Carter said. “Its strength is a great knowledge base, but it is lacking in the delivery system.”

The opinions expressed by Coe, Graham, Pleva and Carter are responses to a questionnaire sent to subscribers of The Fruit Growers News and The Vegetable Growers News Sept. 20. The questionnaire sought feedback from readers about the role Extension plays in the fruit and vegetable industries. Quite a few of the responses discussed Michigan specifically.

MSU Extension still plays an important role in the state’s produce industry, but that role is changing with the times. MSUE must adapt to survive, but it must do so without altering its core mission, said Thomas Coon, MSUE’s director.

“We provide information that is unbiased and based on scientific research, and deliver it on a local level,” he said. “Those are two things we won’t budge on.”

Looking Back

The roots of Extension in Michigan go back to 1855, when the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan was founded in what is now East Lansing. The college, which eventually became Michigan State University, was the prototype for 69 land-grant institutions established under the Morrill Act of 1862. It was the first institution of higher learning in the United States to teach scientific agriculture, according to MSU’s Web site.

In 1914, Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act, which established the Cooperative Extension System (CES), a partnership between USDA and the country’s land-grant universities. The goal of CES was to improve lives through the spread of knowledge, especially agricultural knowledge. Funding for the system was to be split between federal, state and local governments.

The three main components of MSU Extension were agriculture, home economics and 4-H youth programs, said George McManus Jr., a former county Extension director.

“The whole idea was to transfer research information gained at experiment stations to the populace,” he said. “The job of an Extension agent was to disseminate information in language that was understandable.”

The information wasn’t just meant for farmers, housewives and kids. It was meant for everyone. Any gardener, for example, who had a question about soil could call his local Extension agent and get help.

“Extension’s mission is kind of the same, but its methodology and audiences have changed over time to keep up with changes in demographics,” McManus said. “Today, they do a lot of activities beyond what I did when I was there.”

McManus, 75, started working for MSUE in 1956. Ten years later, he was named Grand Traverse County Extension director. He served in that post until 1982. After serving two terms as a state senator, he retired to his farm in 2002. He’s seen a few changes in the last 50 years.

Extension Today

Extension today has a broader base of knowledge to work with, and must provide information on a wider range of subjects. At the same time, however, county agents are more specialized. In the old days, agents were expected to cover all subjects. Now, to stay ahead, one agent has to be a grape specialist, another an apple specialist and another has to know everything about cherries, McManus said.

He’s noticed another change from the old days when referring to field agents.

“It used to be ‘he,'” McManus said. “Now, it’s ‘he’ and ‘she.’ There are more females.”

Funding is a continual battle, McManus said.

MSUE Director Coon broke down the state’s $76 million Extension budget: $28.6 million from Michigan; $24 million from county governments (plus in-kind contributions like support staff, Internet access, travel, etc. that are “hard to put a value on”); and $8 million from USDA. In the last decade or so, MSUE has earned millions of dollars in grants and contracts from public and private agencies.

Federal funding is about the same as it was 15 years ago in actual dollars, but in real value it’s gone down quite a bit. State funding was at $28.7 million in 1999, $100,000 more than 2006. Taking inflation into account, that’s a 28 percent decrease over seven years, Coon said.

Stagnant federal funding and a struggling state economy have led to Michigan’s sharp decrease in aid. The shortfall has trickled down to county governments, which have shouldered an increasing amount of the financial burden.

“At the state level, we need the budget to get turned around,” Coon said. “Until it does, there’s not much expectation for growth.”

Decreases in state revenue sharing have made it incredibly difficult for some counties to keep up. Van Buren County, for example, gave about $525,000 in funding to its Extension office in fiscal year 2004-05. In 2005-06, the amount dropped to $428,000, and in 2006-07, it dropped to $197,000. The rapid decrease in funding has forced the county to cut some staff positions. MSUE is helping Van Buren and other counties with funding, but there’s only so much that can be done, Coon said.

On the bright side, Michigan is giving MSUE a 2 percent funding increase this year, its first increase since 2002.

“It’s still not keeping us up with inflation, but at least it’s keeping us in the right direction,” Coon said. “I’m not looking for huge increases in Extension or higher education in the next five years unless something really significant happens.”

Land-grant universities, including MSU, are focusing more on competitive grant money, which is helping replace federal and state funding, Coon said.

MSUE has 125 fewer employees than it did three years ago, and its services are stretched thin. Educators have to cover more territory.

“You may have an educator who serves two counties or 15,” Coon said.

MSUE has offices and staff in all of Michigan’s 83 counties. In addition, there are 16 field research stations spread throughout the state. Twelve educators serve the fruit industry, along with nine staff members who don’t receive Extension funds but work with educators on fruit programming. There’s also the fruit Area of Expertise Team, comprised of 20 on-campus specialists and 15 field staff.

Staff cuts have forced Extension educators to do more secretarial work, which takes away from their other duties, said Allyn Anthony, a Van Buren County grower and executive secretary of the Michigan State Horticultural Society (MSHS).

“Agents used to be more involved on farms,” he said.

Looking Ahead

A handful of key Extension educators have retired or are planning to retire soon, and replacing their expertise is going to be difficult. MSU students nowadays are more interested in the landscape nursery program than horticulture, Anthony said.

“Fruit growing is not easy,” he said. “It’s tougher now to make a profit than it used to be.”

Extension plays an invaluable role in planning the annual Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market EXPO in Grand Rapids, Mich. MSUE works closely with MSHS and the Michigan Vegetable Council (MVC) to organize the EXPO, which is attracting more people from outside the state.

“We have an opportunity to become the Midwest regional fruit resource,” Anthony said.

Extension will continue to play an important role in Michigan’s vegetable industry by providing growers with information, educational programs and technical assistance, said Dave Smith, MVC’s executive director.

“It is important to understand that the Extension budget also pays a portion of the salaries of key campus research and Extension specialists in horticulture, plant pathology, entomology and other areas,” Smith said. “Without the funding from Extension, we would lose these important positions.”

Extension is already charging fees for some of its educational programs, and will likely do more of that in the future, Smith said.

“There is no question that user fees will become more important,” said Coe, Black Star Farms’ managing partner. “They are the best demonstration of the perceived value of programs.”

Mechanisms can be developed to assist those who can’t afford to pay fees, he said.

Extension plays a key role in Michigan’s asparagus industry by delivering research information to growers in a timely, meaningful way, said John Bakker, executive director of the Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board. MSUE researchers have identified varieties that do well in the state’s climate, and they’ve helped the industry reduce the amount of nitrogen fertilizer it uses.

Bakker said MSUE’s relationship with the asparagus industry is still relevant, despite the funding gaps that need to be filled.

The Michigan Blueberry Growers Association has a good relationship with MSUE, and works closely with its researchers, said Dave Trinka, MBG’s director of research.

MSUE plays another role that’s vital, but often overlooked: leadership development. If an agent is doing a good job, he’s providing community leaders with the information they need to help the industry, but he’s doing it behind the scenes. He’s not out in front getting all the attention. That’s the way the system is designed, but sometimes Extension’s role is not visible enough, said McManus, the former county director.

“There has to be a system where politicians and funding providers understand that things just don’t happen,” he said. “Somebody has to make things happen.”

A personal touch is essential. Tools like the Internet, e-mail, television and radio are good ways to spread information, but they should never replace face-to-face contact with an Extension agent, McManus said.

Growers have become increasingly sophisticated, and have access to more information than ever before. They need help identifying trends and defining their competitive advantage. MSUE needs to continually adapt its methods to help them do that, but always with the same goal in mind.

“We were created to foster economic development in the state,” Coon said. “We’re still here for that reason.”

Look in December’s issue of The Fruit Growers News for information on federal Extension efforts. Further discussion on the Extension programs in other states will be featured in upcoming issues.

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