Cooperative Extension Services Facing Leaner Times; New Missions
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Cash-strapped states are cutting spending on agricultural extension programs this year, forcing the 77-year-old grassroots network that touches virtually every county into making painful choices that affect farmers and urban families.
At risk are the backbone of the cooperative extension service, the county agricultural specialists who for decades have provided farmers, ranchers, foresters and livestock producers with advice and the latest land-grant university research.
Other institutions are also in jeopardy, such as the 4-H program for young people.
Services to urban and low-income families could also be on the chopping block, including gardening specialists and home economists, who provide nutrition, food-safety and financial management advice.
Long gone is most spending for programs on canning, crafts and fashion, victim of both changing times and leaner budgets.
″Extension is obviously under a lot of stress and strain all across the nation,″ says Danny Cheatham of the Mississippi Cooperative Extension Service.
At the same time that economic hard times are forcing states to cut their cooperative extension budgets, the services are being increasingly relied upon for advice and information by farmers and families coping with the recession, said Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Clinton Turner.
For some states, where spending reductions have already forced painful cuts, the latest round ″could become excruciating,″ said Richard Rankin, deputy administrator for management of the Agriculture Department’s Cooperative Extension Service.
The federal government finances about 30 percent of the cost of extension services, with states and counties sharing the balance. This year, the federal government contributed $400 million toward the overall $1.2 billion cost.
Some states, Rankin said, have reached a point where they simply can no longer freeze vacancies or do more with less, and must now consider layoffs.
The situation has been particularly tough in Georgia, where Gov. Zell Miller had wanted to cut state extension spending by 42 percent, $13.9 million. Under his plan, some county agents, the home economics program, all agricultural specialists and most secretaries and laboratory technicians would have been eliminated.
A laboratory that provides analyses of soil, plant, water, livestock and pesticide residues for farmers and homeowners would have been closed. And specialists who advise the state’s poultry, forestry and livestock industries would have been cut.
The governor, however, and legislative leaders compromised this week on a cut of 23 percent, $6.9 million, which will still mean the elimination of some county agents and agricultural specialists, said Randall Coffer, chairman of agricultural communications for the Georgia Cooperative Extension Service.
Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin said he had heard complaints that the extension service had gotten into areas where it didn’t belong, such as international marketing or rural development.
″We can’t afford duplication; we don’t have the luxury of money to let people do bits and pieces of things somebody else is doing,″ Irvin said. ″You heard it everywhere you turned, that they’re involved in too many things they didn’t need to be involved in.″
As a result of the cuts, the extension service will have to focus its scope on ″helping agriculture prosper,″ Irvin said.
Aside from extension’s traditional role of providing research and technical advice to farmers, today’s programs include nutrition education for families, food safety, water quality, pest management and efforts geared to youth at risk of suicide, pregnancy or dropping out of school.
Extension officials defend the scope, saying such services are the link that provides information to urban and rural people alike. Some problems, said Rankin, are too big ″for a single organization to deal with. No one has a monopoly on answers to these kinds of concerns.″
At the same time, they acknowledged that budget cuts are forcing the cooperative extension services to evaluate their priorities.
In Mississippi, where the state’s extension budget was cut $2 million, the ″downsizing″ is going on almost daily, said Cheatham, assistant director of county programs and administration for the state’s extension service.
The state can no longer afford to have an agricultural extension agent, a home economist and a 4-H employee in every county, he said. Some counties are now sharing their agricultural extension agent.
″You can’t take a $2 million reduction and not see reduced services,″ he said. ″But we’re doing everything we can to be more efficient.″
In Texas, the Agricultural Extension Service faces a $2 million shortfall, said director Zerle Carpenter. Positions will have to be reduced, but there should be enough vacancies to avoid layoffs, he said.
While the cuts will result in shifts in priorities, Carpenter said, ″we are determined we will not lose our network in serving all of the citizens of Texas.″