Nov 14, 2007Extension Losing a Personal Touch in Pennsylvania
This is the seventh story in a series about the future of Extension.
The image of the county Extension agent riding in a pickup all day, visiting local farmers and doling out general advice, doesn’t apply any more. Nowadays, he (or she) more than likely is sitting in front of a computer, searching the Internet, reading and writing e-mails, perusing digital pictures and talking to growers on the phone.
A consolidating industry, advances in technology and, of course, budget cuts have led to the new image of the county Extension agent (now commonly referred to as an educator).
“It used to be the Extension guy was the only person growers would talk to,” said Matt Harsh, ag economic development educator in Adams County, Pa. “Now, there are a lot of other information sources out there.”
The story is the same in Pennsylvania as in other states. Stagnant state and federal funding has forced Penn State Cooperative Extension & Outreach (PSCE) to seek more grant money. As a result, county educators are doing more research on behalf of funding sources, and farmers aren’t getting as much direct help as they used to.
“Our budget trends are much like the rest of the country,” according to an e-mail from Daney Jackson, PSCE’s director. “Our appropriated funding has been flat or increasing at rates less than inflation. We have supplemented those trends with grants and fees to maintain programming at the levels demanded by our clientele.”
The biggest decline has been in federal funding, which was the largest portion of PSCE’s annual budget 15 years ago, Jackson said. In fiscal year 2006-07, the federal portion (15 percent) of PSCE’s $78.7 million budget was smaller than both the state (39 percent) and county (16 percent) portions. Grants, fees, gifts and other revenue sources rounded out the budget, according to PSCE.
There are about 295 Extension educators scattered throughout Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. Twenty-five to 30 of them work directly with the state’s fruit and vegetable industries. In addition, there are about 100 faculty members on campus with some Extension responsibilities, according to Jackson.
The main campus of Penn State, Pennsylvania’s only land-grant university, is in State College – almost exactly in the center of the state. Faculty at Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences do research and other activities on behalf of Pennsylvania farmers.
Bill Lamont, professor of vegetable crops, does applied research on campus. His Extension career began in 1980 at North Carolina State University. For the past decade, he’s researched the best ways to grow potatoes, sweet corn, pumpkins and other crops under high tunnels in Pennsylvania.
He doesn’t travel as much as he used to, much to his disappointment.
“The lack of travel money curtails our ability to spend time with growers,” he said. “I always enjoyed that part.”
Lamont exchanges information frequently with county educators, in the never-ending quest to address grower concerns. Those concerns are numerous these days, but the biggest probably is labor.
Adequate labor also is a concern for Extension. There are fewer educators now than there were when Lamont started.
“As I look around at the age bracket, there’re going to be a whole lot less in a few years,” he said.
There isn’t the interest in Extension there used to be – which is too bad, because young, talented people are needed, he said.
“It’s a great job to have, if you enjoy working with people.”
Kathy Demchak, a senior Extension associate, also works on campus. She’s been with Penn State since 1983. She works mostly with berry producers – conducting applied research and helping them with problems they encounter. She has some research plots at an Extension center in Landisville but also does experiments on the farms of three growers. Working directly with commercial growers keeps you grounded in reality, she said.
Demchak coordinates the Mid-Atlantic Berry Guide, a publication that pools information from berry specialists in six states. Some surrounding states used to print their own publications, but the dwindling number of Extension agents encouraged them to consolidate their information.
“We have a smaller pool of people, and the people who are here have less time,” Demchak said. “It seems to be happening in other states as well.”
Perhaps the best example of regional cooperation is the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention, held every winter in Hershey, Pa. Demchak chairs the convention’s small fruit program.
Jayson Harper, professor of agriculture economics on campus, helps growers measure the profitability of their current or potential business enterprises. He’s done a lot of work with the fruit industry, looking at higher-density production systems and new pest management technologies. He also has studied high tunnel production and irrigation techniques for the vegetable industry.
Harper works mostly with county educators, who transmit his findings to growers. He usually talks with growers during winter meetings.
When plum pox was discovered in Pennsylvania about eight years ago, Harper worked closely with the federal and state governments to develop a compensation scheme for affected growers. The plum pox crisis had a major impact on about half a dozen growers, who were compensated about $30 million for the loss of their trees. It was a good example of different levels of government working together to solve problems, he said.
When Harper came to Penn State 18 years ago, there was one telephone in his department – which was answered by a secretary. Communication tools like the Internet, e-mail, fax machines and video conferencing have drastically changed the way he does his job.
Adams County fruit
Adams County can safely be called the heart of Pennsylvania’s fruit industry. There are about 22,000 acres of fruit in the county, roughly half the total acreage in the entire state. There also are 75 commercial fruit farms and a fruit research center in Biglerville, according to Harsh, one of the county’s educators.
Apples and peaches are the biggest crops, though peach acreage declined significantly after plum pox was found. About two-thirds of the apples are grown for processing, but the industry is moving more and more toward the fresh market, Harsh said.
There’s a fair amount of investment going on in the Adams County fruit industry, and many growers and packers are making upgrades. Demand for local produce also is expanding, and growers are taking advantage of that, he said.
The county Extension office is in Gettysburg, where there are 10 educators, four support people and a lot of interns covering a nine-county region. The county’s annual Extension budget is $250,000, Harsh said.
Tara Baugher is Adams County’s tree fruit educator. Her agricultural background runs deep. She’s related, by marriage, to the family that owns Adams County Nursery. She grew up on a fruit farm in West Virginia, where she worked for West Virginia University Extension for 15 years. She’s been with Penn State for three years.
Baugher pointed to the Pennsylvania Ag Innovations Initiative as a good example of Extension, government and industry leaders coming together to plan for the future. The goal of the initiative, started in 2005, is to improve Pennsylvania agriculture. There are three focus areas: land-use planning, marketing partnerships and production innovations.
Lately, Baugher has been working with student interns and engineers on new technologies – like orchard research platforms, in-field bin fillers, tunnel sprayers and computer visioning – that can help growers solve their labor problems by mechanizing the harvest.
Half the cost of an apple is labor, so any new ideas young engineers can come up with are welcome, said John Rice, president of Rice Fruit Co., based in Adams County.
The various problems involved with storing apples are numerous, and it’s comforting to have access to a scientific resource like Extension that’s capable of giving rapid answers, Rice said.
On top of growing their own, Rice and his brothers market fruit from about 50 other growers in the area. They regard Extension as a very important service, he said.
Tim Weiser, a fruit and vegetable grower in York Springs, deals with Extension educators regularly. Demchak, the berry specialist, has been on his farm quite a few times, testing an unknown virus that’s been affecting his blueberries. He’s also getting help in a dispute he’s having with his township. He wants to build a new market on his farm, but local officials say he can’t do it because it’s not considered agricultural. Extension personnel will send references to his township when the issue comes up for debate, explaining how other farms have done the same thing in other communities.
“I’d hate to be without Extension,” Weiser said. “If they don’t know something, they have the capability to find it for us – when I have no idea where to look for it.”
On top of its educational services for growers, PSCE makes a great effort to educate the general public about Pennsylvania’s fruit industry, encouraging consumers to buy locally through newspaper stories, bus tours and an annual apple blossom festival, said Sandra Spence, office manager for the Adams County Fruit Growers Association.
The association has been making annual donations to Extension programs for some time, despite the fact it doesn’t have as much funding as it used to, Spence said.
As president of the State Horticultural Association of Pennsylvania, Brad Hollabaugh finds PSCE personnel to be receptive and cooperative to the industry. As a fruit grower, he benefits greatly from their information. Of course, it helps that his farm is adjacent to the fruit research center in Biglerville and that PSCE researchers do experiments on his farm. He’s currently participating in a three-year project studying area-wide mating disruption.
There are more than 3,000 vegetable growers in Pennsylvania, growing on about 50,000 acres. The major crops include sweet corn, potatoes, pumpkins, snap beans, tomatoes, cabbage, squash, peppers and cantaloupes. The industry is pretty well spread across the state, though Lancaster County – home of the Southeast Research and Extension Center – has the most acreage, according to William Troxell, executive director of the Pennsylvania Vegetable Growers Association (PVGA).
In the last two decades, Troxell has seen two predominant trends in Extension: regionalization and specialization. Educators are working in larger areas, but their responsibilities are narrower. They used to stay in one county and were expected to know a little bit of everything.
Three or four decades ago, Extension specialists did very little research. They spent most of their time in the field. Now, they don’t have the time or budget to travel around as much, Troxell said.
The university’s Vegetable and Small Fruit Gazette, published in cooperation with other states, is an effective way of spreading news. Prior to that, there was no organized method of disseminating information on a regular basis, he said.
Steve Bogash is a regional horticulture educator based in Franklin County, not too far from Adams County. He and Tim Elkner, an educator in Lancaster County, cover vegetables in a nine-county region. One of their duties is sending out a newsletter to regional growers. They write a lot of the articles but also get information from the main campus.
The best places in the region to meet a lot of growers at once are the two produce auctions – the foundation of the local industry. Bogash has held a lot of informal meetings at the auctions.
Bogash runs an IPM trapping program for sweet corn – one of the most straightforward impacts he has on local growers. Every Monday from June to September, he spends most of the day emptying traps, looking for corn borers and earworms. The results allow him to give accurate pest-control recommendations to local growers – thus saving them money.
“The trapping network is a great way for me to interact with growers on a regular basis,” he said. “That’s why I love it.”
Corn earworm counts were high this year, higher than Bogash has ever seen, forcing some growers to tighten up their spray schedules.
A few years ago, one of the two major strawberry plug suppliers in the region went out of business, and the other had difficulty meeting the increased demand. Most regional growers use a raised bed plasticulture system, and needed plugs. Bogash and Elkner taught a couple of them how to produce their own. Now, there is a network of local growers who produce and distribute plugs, and the quality and volume are better than ever, Bogash said.
Eric Oesterling works with vegetable growers in Westmoreland County. He’s been a PSCE educator for 26 years. Farmers in his area grow standard roadside crops for the fresh market. He helps them with production issues, rather than marketing.
“Growers who’ve been around are pretty good at marketing,” he said. “It would be presumptuous of me to tell these folks how to market their product.”
When John Mason – a vegetable and small fruit grower in Erie County – started farming, he leaned heavily on Extension. He used to see his county agent several times a year, but now doesn’t see him at all unless he asks for help. Of course, he doesn’t need Extension as much after farming for 35 years – but other people still do.
For more than a dozen years, Mason has been paying a consultant to take a weekly look at his crops. The consultant serves other growers in the area and has the advantage of seeing potential problems before Mason does. Extension agents used to perform such duties but don’t have the time or resources now.
Mason, a PVGA director, said his organization donates about $30,000 a year to PSCE for vegetable research. The association also is funding 50 percent of a staff position at Penn State. Funding a position like that is outside the association’s usual realm, but nobody else was willing to do it, Mason said.
“There’s no way an association like us can fund Extension,” he said. “We can only help.”
Joe Strite, a fruit and vegetable grower in Harrisburg, has seen Extension go from being highly visible in his orchard to hardly having a presence.
“I don’t know when the last time an agent was on this farm for a visit – maybe five or 10 years,” Strite said. “It used to be an agent would visit a couple times a summer.”
Strite can’t get along without Extension, and neither can other growers. That’s why more funding is needed.
“We don’t need what we had 30 years ago, but we’re fighting to at least keep what we’ve got.”