On Wednesday of last week, the March 2011 issue of The Progressive Farmer landed on my desk.
While I enjoy reading this periodical, I found its cover jarring. The cover read, “Is Extension still relevant?”
As an Extension educator, of course, I think Extension is still relevant. But I thought I would read the article and try to take an objective view, realizing I could never be truly objective, since I’m human.
Upon reading the article, the short answer is “yes.” Extension is still relevant; while it looks very different, and that is the rub. The author asked three farmers their take on Extension’s relevance and got three very different answers.
One farmer from Michigan couldn’t even name his Extension agent. Not surprising in a state where Extension and Michigan State University’s College of Agriculture have taken severe budget cuts as lawmakers look for low-hanging fruit to fill their budget shortfalls.
In 1914, when Congress established the Extension Service through the Smith-Lever Act, 31 percent of Americans were farmers and the U.S. was not yet the agricultural powerhouse it was to become. This transformation came about thanks to the Land Grant Colleges, their Agricultural Experiment Stations and their sister organization, the Extension Service, whose charge was the information and technology transfer from the stations and laboratories to the farms and fields.
Today, with less than 2 percent of Americans farming, there are fewer voices to clamor when the budget ax falls. The other two farmers’ answers were much more positive, but are still not loud enough.
The Kansas wheat farmer said he “talks to Extension as much or more than he used to” and the Michigan dairy farmer said, “my dairy specialist has been very valuable to us.”
So what do outsiders say about Extension? On my trips overseas, a common statement has been, “the United States Land Grant System is the envy of the world.” To the extent that the University of Maryland has sent several delegations to former Soviet Republics and other Eastern European countries to help them establish such a system.
As a friend of mine once said, “A prophet has no honor in his own land.”
Extension in Maryland has taken its hits, too. When I was an active 4-H member more than 30 years ago, Washington County had two agents working in 4-H, two agents working in Family and Consumer Sciences (FCS), three working in agriculture (Ag) and horticulture (Hort) and one working in Community Resource Development, as well as eight support staff. Today, we have one educator in each program area (4-H, FCS, Ag and Hort) and five support staff.
There have been programmatic changes, too. 4-H today is made up of more nonfarm youth than farm youth. We do much more home horticulture education, and Family and Consumer Science focuses on family finance, diet, nutrition and health rather than cooking and sewing. Agriculture has changed, but at the same time has come almost full circle. Production agriculture still gets the lion’s share of attention, but small and part-time farmers are increasing in their patronage of Extension. Which is kind of a déjà vu experience because in the early 1990s, many farmers were bivocational.
As I said, I’m biased. I’m a product of the Land Grant system. I was a 4-H member and received two degrees from two Land Grant Universities. I work for a Land Grant and my mother still belongs to the Homemakers Club. But if I can give an objective opinion, I will quote my administrative assistant: “I have lived here all my life and until I started working here, I had no idea all the things you did. You are the best- kept secret.”
Well, it looks like we have to get the secret out before it is too late. University of Maryland Extension is your front door to the University of Maryland, your Land Grant University providing solutions to your community.
Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.