May 16, 2007
Pursuit Of Grants Alters Washington Extension Priorities

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

Contrary to the opinions of most of his old professors, Tim Smith is not a loser.

In fact, he’s quite highly regarded within the Washington state tree fruit industry. His services as an Extension agent are greatly appreciated, and his job keeps him both busy and fulfilled. At 58, he’s old enough to retire, but he plans to keep working until he can’t do it anymore. In short, he loves his job – which might come as a surprise to those old professors.

“I wanted to be out in the field doing research and teaching,” Smith said. “I was one of the first people (his professors) ran into who thought that was a good idea. They considered agents to be people who had failed.”

That was more than 30 years ago, and attitudes presumably have changed. Certainly, Extension agents today are valued by Washington’s fruit and vegetable growers, perhaps more so because they’re in such short supply.

A scarcity of agents isn’t unique to Washington State University Extension. As in other states, Washington’s land-grant system is adjusting to a structural shift in funding, relying more and more on competitive grants and contracts. Such funding does wonders to fill needed gaps, but pursuing it can become an end in itself and take valuable time away from the research, education and other activities agents need to do in order to be useful to growers.

Proven value

According to Director Linda Kirk Fox, WSU Extension ended fiscal year 2006 with $55 million in expenditures. Nine percent of that came from federal contributions, 19 percent from county governments, 31 percent from the state and 33 percent from competitive grants and contracts (the other 8 percent came from private donations, fundraising, self-sustaining accounts and service fees).

Competitive dollars, now WSUE’s largest source of revenue, have done an excellent job covering programs and expanding the workforce, but the erosion in government funding over the years has destabilized the financial base. If WSUE doesn’t have the foundational dollars to support basic programs, it’s tougher to win grants and contracts. Without grants and contracts, it’s tougher to maintain program excellence, Fox said.

Without quality Extension programs, growers are left with fewer options.

For example, Extension partners with the private sector and state government to run an extensive pesticide education program for apple growers, teaching them safe handling practices, said Dave Carlson, president of the Washington Apple Commission.

Terry Carkner – co-owner of Terry’s Berries, a certified organic produce farm near Tacoma – was taking a business planning class in March led by an Extension agent. It’s one of many “wonderful” WSUE classes designed to help farmers make use of their small acreages. Planning tools picked up from such programs help her 20-acre farm earn $250,000 annually, she said.

Extension faculty play an integral role in planning the educational portion of the Pacific Northwest Vegetable Association’s annual meeting, said Bob Simerly, PNVA’s president. The association represents vegetable growers in Washington, Oregon and Idaho.

WSUE carries out a number of research activities for Washington’s 250 potato growers and their 160,000 acres, said Karen Bonaudi, assistant executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission.

Extension agents often hold educational programs for growers, or work one-on-one with them. It’s an important part of grower education, Bonaudi said.

More with less

Working with Washington’s more than 300 commodities requires a lot of manpower. Between WSU’s main campus in Pullman, a handful of other campuses and experiment stations and 39 county offices, Extension has 720 employees and 15,000 volunteers working in 4-H, animal, horticulture, community and master gardener programs, according to WSUE’s director.

Many of those employees are county agents who, in a lot of ways, serve as the interface between growers and the land-grant university.

The role of fruit and vegetable agents will be just as important in the future as it has been in the past, even though the industries they work in are going through major transitions in the areas of labor, the environment and government regulations, said Jim Hazen, executive director of the Washington State Horticultural Association.

In order to stay relevant, however, Extension personnel have to be adaptable, Hazen said.

As one of the few full-time tree fruit agents remaining in Washington, Tim Smith has learned to adapt. He works with growers throughout the state, but concentrates his activities in a three-county region stretching from Wenatchee to the Canadian border. The region’s 1,200 growers and 65,000 acres of orchards are enough to keep him busy, but the tree fruit team is stretched so thin his expertise is often needed elsewhere. There are three full-time tree fruit positions in the entire state, but only two of them were occupied in March. A few other agents contribute here and there, but when you add it all together it comes to about four full-time agents working with the state’s 5,000 growers and 250,000 acres of tree fruit. Needless to say, Smith doesn’t spend a lot of one-on-one time with his clients.

Tree fruit agents weren’t always stretched so thin. In the ’80s and ’90s, there were seven full-time agents, but state budget cuts diminished that number, said Jay Brunner, director of the Tree Fruit Research and Extension Center.

When Smith started working in Wenatchee in 1982, there were three agents in his region. Now, it’s just him. In the meantime, tree fruit acreage has increased substantially. Thirty million boxes of apples are packed in his region – 30 percent of the state crop. Most of Washington’s fresh pears and 40 percent of its cherries also grow under his purview, Smith said.

At first, his responsibility was pest management. Now, he’s responsible for horticulture as well. He’s also learned a thing or two about weeds, soils, agricultural engineering and other subjects.

“You grow with the job,” Smith said. “If you stay nimble and hang around long enough, you become an expert in a lot of things.”

Good Extension agents tend to be highly employable in the private sector, but Smith never went that route. He’s too much of a “clergy type” to go after financial rewards, he said.

“Just because you’re in Extension 25 to 35 years doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a loser,” he said. “I can’t imagine a more interesting thing to do.”

Smith used to visit growers more often, but he considers farm visits an extremely inefficient way of getting things done when you’re dealing with thousands of acres.

“It’s important to learn what’s going on, but to wander around and see what’s wrong on a farm just can’t happen.”

Back in the “good old days,” things were different, Bob Mathison said. When Mathison, 55, was a kid, there were more Extension agents and they would visit farms regularly. Because of funding cuts, agents today have to be more self-sufficient, he said.

Mathison is a member of the family that owns Stemilt Growers, a large fruit operation. Like other growers, Stemilt’s relationship with Extension is rather impersonal nowadays, with agents conducting large meetings and working through fieldmen to disseminate information, instead of visiting individual farms. The public/private partnership works well, however, because fieldmen visit farms armed with knowledge they get from Extension agents, he said.

On the few occasions Smith – the tree fruit agent – does visit a farm, it’s usually to solve a problem that’s already been discovered. Even special visits are becoming less necessary, thanks to technology. Smith recalled a recent phone conversation with a grower. He asked the grower to send him a picture of his problem, so the grower – who was sitting in his truck in the field – took a digital picture, put it in his computer and sent it to Smith, who was sitting in his office. Smith told the grower his problem wasn’t what he thought it was, so the grower stopped what he was doing immediately. He could have been in New York and it would have happened just as fast.

“We communicated so rapidly and so well I stopped the problem right away,” Smith said. “My physical presence isn’t always necessary.”

Like other agents, Smith spreads information through fieldmen – employees of chemical and other private companies who work closely with growers – and learns from them as well.

Smith considers himself something of a throwback. He’s one of the few remaining agents who focus on keeping farms profitable. Newer agents focus less on farmers and more on other issues, like agriculture’s impact on the environment, he said.

Kim Patten, an Extension specialist in southwest Washington, has a similar perspective. He works with the shellfish and cranberry industries.

Patten said Extension priorities are shifting away from “traditional agriculture” to issues like climate, water quality, sustainability, urban/rural relationships and the role of small farms, CSAs and farmers’ markets. Part of the shift has to do with grant money. Funding for traditional farm programs is not in vogue.

That’s too bad, because a few more tree fruit agents would really come in handy, Smith said. He and his peers have a fairly clear sight of where they want the tree fruit industry to go, but they get so caught up in planning meetings and performing other routine tasks that it distracts them from the big picture: converting orchards to smaller, more efficient trees.

“A massive number of people need to be moved from where they are to where they’re going,” he said. “We have to convince people this must be done.”

Another task that breaks up Smith’s day is applied research, but it’s something he can’t avoid.

“Without applied research, we get no grants,” he said. “Without grants, we can’t do anything.”

Tim Waters hasn’t been an Extension agent nearly as long as Smith, but he’s already learned the same lesson.

“Nobody likes to write grants,” Waters said, but “you have to do it to get funding.”

Waters works mostly with commercial vegetable growers in Benton and Franklin counties. At 28, he’s been on the job a little more than a year. He got his master’s degree in entomology from WSU and is working on his doctorate. He’d like to be an agent for the rest of his career.

Waters is the only vegetable agent in his area. He concentrates primarily on potatoes – 63,000 acres of them – onions, carrots and sweet corn. It’s his job to determine what the needs are in his area and address as many of them as he can. He often works as a middleman, passing information back and forth among growers, fieldmen and researchers. He occasionally visits farms. He helps organize meetings and develop their educational content. He’s worked on thrips control in onion production – a major problem.

“It’s my job to be jack of all trades, and hopefully master of one or two.”

Waters is partially funded by Washington State University and partially by Franklin County. The county covers half of a vehicle he shares with another agent. WSU also helps a bit with travel expenses, he said.

When Waters started, his position had been empty for two years. Even now, though he has plenty to do, he feels underutilized. Many growers have lost touch with Extension and aren’t aware of what it can do for them. That needs to change.

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