Apr 7, 2007
Funding Cutbacks Force North Carolina Extension To Be Creative

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

Mary Helen Ferguson just got a job as a county agent with North Carolina Cooperative Extension. It’s the first step in her career and, like all recent graduates, she’s excited about her future but unsure where it will lead.

Her future career decisions will depend on her experiences, personality, likes and dislikes, but also on the opportunities available in her field. Thanks to shrinking federal and state Extension budgets, those opportunities are narrowing, but enough of them are out there to make Extension work a viable career option.

Ferguson, 24, earned a master’s degree in horticultural science from North Carolina State University (NC State) last month. She was hired to start working this month in Randolph County, in the central part of the state. She hoped her new position would include frequent farm visits, but got the impression she would be spending a lot of time in an office. She was told her responsibilities would include commercial and home horticulture, forestry and residential pest management. She wasn’t too familiar with the last two items, but that’s OK, because she likes to learn about a variety of subjects.

The chance to educate herself and others is one of the things that drew Ferguson to Extension work. She considered teaching for a long time, but agriculture kept calling. Her new job combines both passions.

Finding the right job wasn’t easy, at least outside North Carolina. She didn’t run across many opportunities in other states, and since she was familiar with North Carolina’s programs and had friends and family in the area, she decided to stay put.

“There weren’t a whole lot of jobs out there that had the fruit and vegetable components I wanted,” she said. “NC State has one of the strongest horticulture programs in the Southeast. There’s more of an emphasis on Extension in North Carolina than in other states.”


Jon Ort would probably take pride in Ferguson’s last sentence. He’s been the director of North Carolina Cooperative Extension for 11 years.

Extension’s methods have changed somewhat over the years, but its mission hasn’t: to assist people in putting research-based knowledge to work and to help North Carolina achieve economic prosperity, the director said.

Agriculture, North Carolina’s No. 1 industry, generates $68 billion per year, according to Richard Reich, an assistant commissioner with the state’s agriculture department.

With a number like that, the potential for economic prosperity is huge.

Cooperative Extension is based at NC State in Raleigh, North Carolina’s original land-grant university, and reaches into all the state’s 100 counties and its Cherokee reservation. The entire system has an annual budget of roughly $100 million. About 42 percent of that is supplied by the state, 25 percent by county governments, 18 percent by grants and contracts and about 15 percent by the federal government, Ort said.

NC State works closely with North Carolina A&T State University on Extension programs, but the 1890 institution is much smaller and has its own funding, primarily from the federal government, Ort said.

Like most states, North Carolina has faced plenty of budget challenges in the last few years.

“We used to say we were state funded, then state supported,” Ort said, with a touch of humor in his voice. “Now, we say we’re state located.”

Fortunately, North Carolina’s Extension service has a history of receiving “tremendous” support from county governments, which aren’t required to give as much as they do. Their support means Extension is doing something right, Ort said.

“They’re saying ‘we like what you do, we think you’re making a difference,'” he said. “They can’t afford to fund things that can’t make a positive impact.”

County support comes in the form of salaries, office space, technical assistance, computers, desks and other equipment, he said.

Extension has increased its fundraising activities in the last few years. It also charges fees for some services, but the fees are limited compared to some of NC State’s other outreach activities, the director said.

Ort said Extension would probably see a higher rate of grant and contract money down the road.

“We’ve been very successful over the last few years in generating new funding,” he said. “A lot of universities are moving to that model.”

Extension has about 1,630 employees, according to Ort, who wasn’t sure how many of them were fruit and vegetable specialists. That number was higher at one point, but a shortage of state funding has forced the system to “nibble” at programs to save money. Positions have been merged and responsibilities redistributed. Some agents now cover two or three counties instead of one. Specialists split their time between campus and visiting farms, he said.

Some counties have felt the financial effects less than others. Ross Young, Madison County Extension director, said there have been few changes in his county since he started working there 16 years ago. He has more people on his staff now, 11, than when he started. As far as funding, he gets about $200,000 a year from the county and at least that much from the state, but it’s hard to measure the state’s contribution because it comes in the form of salaries and other things. Since he became director five years ago, Madison County Extension has earned about $179,000 a year in grants.

The grant money helps supplement his budget, but it’s not particularly stable as a source of funding. The $179,000 comes from 10 institutions, and is not guaranteed, Young said.

Ferguson, the new agent, didn’t think funding cuts would affect her. It’s an issue, but also could be seen as motivation for Extension to stay relevant. As long as growers need its services, the system will always be around, she said.

“The pay is fine for me, benefits are good – I get to continue my education and stay in contact with cutting-edge technology,” she said. “I’m quite pleased.”

Changing role

Judging by the long careers of other Extension agents in North Carolina, Ferguson is right not to worry. Darrell Blackwelder has been a horticulture agent in Rowan County for 25 years. He plans to keep at it for a few more before he retires. He works in an unusual area, as far as agriculture goes.

Rowan County is a bedroom community about 45 miles north of Charlotte. It’s considered an urban area, with a population of about 140,000. The authorities just laid an eight-lane highway through its middle. It’s not the most ideal climate for agriculture, but growers still thrive there, Blackwelder said.

He works with vegetables. There are about 500 acres of tomatoes in his county, with one grower – the largest in the state – accounting for 350 of them. There isn’t a whole lot he can teach experienced growers about how to raise their crops, but lately he’s been helping out in areas like pesticides, food safety, migrant workers and E. coli.

Since he started, traditional growers have become specialized and focus more on crops like mushrooms and lettuce. Organic also has grown, Blackwelder said.

The increased emphasis on specialty crops has changed Extension’s focus.

For example, Madison County used to have a $10 million burley tobacco industry, but that has dwindled to about $3 million. Growers are struggling to find new crops to replace tobacco, but the county’s mountainous terrain doesn’t mesh well with traditional row crops like soybeans, wheat and cotton. A crop like tomatoes can be grown in small fields and is worth more money, said Young, the county director.

To help county growers earn bigger profits, the Extension office now has a value-added facility that includes a kitchen, washing line and cold storage. Local growers can use the facility to turn blueberries into jam, potatoes into wedges or find other ways to add value to their produce – free of charge. About 22 farmers used the facility last year. The goal is to sell about $100,000 of local products per year to schools and other institutions, and to keep that money in the county, Young said.

When it comes to “value-added,” of course, nothing comes close to wine. Sara Spayd was hired as Extension viticulture specialist in March, and she’s been building a program ever since.

Extension is more involved in winegrape research than it was in the past, said Steve Shepard, winemaker at RayLen Vineyards and Winery in Davie County.

“Just having them involved is a positive influence,” Shepard said. “Many of the things they’ve suggested have helped us.”

Even though Spayd is a native of North Carolina, she spent 26 years as an enologist with Washington State University. When it comes to Extension delivery, there’s quite a contrast between Washington state and North Carolina, she said.

“Weather conditions in both states are almost 180 degrees apart.”

Washington has fewer, larger counties than its eastern counterpart, and fewer county agents. For example, there are about 60,000 acres of grapes in Washington, and one agent covers about 40,000 of them. There are 2,400 acres of grapes in North Carolina, Spayd said.

The larger farms in Washington usually hire their own consultants, who work with Extension agents. In North Carolina, there’s more of a direct relationship between growers and agents. Despite the different focus in each state, Extension works well for both, she said.

North Carolina Cooperative Extension has moved from being an information provider to being an information interpreter, said Marjorie Rayburn, an Extension agent in Gates County who focuses on water quality and commercial horticulture. She also works in nearby Chowan and Perquimans counties. She deals with a wide array of fruit and vegetables including grapes, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, watermelons, cantaloupe, tomatoes, peppers, squash, pumpkins, broccoli, cabbage, collards and others.

“I kind of have to do it all.”

She’s the only fruit and vegetable agent in all three counties. There are close to 30 major produce growers in the area, she said.

When Rayburn started working for Extension 16 years ago, there were more agents, but fewer females. That’s not the case today. More women are interested in Extension positions, and there’s more acceptance among men.

“When I first came to work, it was not unusual to be the only female agent at a training,” she said. “Now, there are many more female agents, especially in horticulture and livestock.”

Rayburn’s job is mostly reactive. She’ll get a call from a grower who’s having a problem, and she’ll try to find the best way to solve it. If she can’t figure it out herself, she’ll send it to specialists at NC State.

She deals with small “hobby” or “weekend” farmers more than the large commercial growers, who rely on paid consultants. Sometimes, she wishes she could be more involved in her clients’ decisions from the beginning, which could avoid problems later on. For example, some growers once planted a variety of watermelon that was not resistant to fusarium. If she had been there, she could have told them to avoid that variety.

“I assume they know stuff they don’t know,” she said, but “some of those individuals are willing to take risks and try something different that experienced growers aren’t willing to do.”

Cal Lewis, a fruit and vegetable grower in Pender County and president of the North Carolina Vegetable Growers Association, said farm visits by Extension agents were becoming a thing of the past, especially since large farming operations started hiring their own consultants.

“We don’t use Extension at the county level as much as at the university level,” he said. “If we want to know something about a particular weed in strawberries, we’ll call a specialist at the university.”

Finding the answer to a question nowadays can be as simple as going online, but he still considers Extension a valuable resource. He frequently encourages his employees to consult with Extension personnel.

“Our organization participates in every facet of Extension,” he said. “We want to be in touch with any and all new developments in agriculture.”

A good decision

Ferguson, the new agent, is where she wants to be right now. In her situation, that might make her a little unusual. There weren’t many students in her graduate department that went in with the intention of working for Extension. Several were considering it, but Ferguson and her roommate were the only students she knew of who were getting Extension jobs, she said.

“I just like fruits and veggies,” Ferguson said. “I enjoy working with farmers. Right now, it’s a pretty secure place to be.”

Look in future editions of The Fruit Growers News for stories about Extension activities in other states.

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