University extension services will never be the same. That's the only certainty as university administrators around the West struggle to reconcile extension services' mission with today's economic realities.
State revenue shortfalls are the seeds of these changes. At Oregon State University, Washington State University, the University of Idaho, the University of California and land grant colleges and universities around the West, massive and repeated budget cuts have forced equally massive reductions in extension staff. The state budget problems that precipitated the cuts are so huge that it is unrealistic to expect state general fund support for extension ever to return to previous levels.
By themselves, the numbers and percentages of cuts are stunning. University of California has lost more than half of its extension advisors since the 1980s. At OSU, more than 60 faculty in extension and natural resources may be cut -- on top of 24 faculty positions already cut. The University of Idaho shuttered one research station and redlined 70 faculty positions.
When the cuts first started, the extension services adopted an attitude of doing more with less. When the second wave of cuts hit, that changed to doing less with less.
Now, after repeated cuts, administrators and staff must reinvent the entire extension system.
"We can't really think about this as what extension looked like 10 years ago and what it looks like today," WSU College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resources Dean Dan Bernardo told the Capital Press. "Extension needs to look a lot different today, simply because of the information requirements of farmers and their access to information from all over the nation."
Whether they're called agents, advisors or educators, extension personnel will be part of a new type of service.
For example, OSU College of Agricultural Sciences Dean Sonny Ramaswamy sees the extension service carving out unique niches. One area in which he wants OSU to specialize is grass-fed systems. "We're going to put our shingle out. We're going to be the world's best place for grass-fed systems," he said.
In the meantime, producers will still have access to information about other types of livestock systems from other extension services.
The decision to reinvent extension services comes from the recognition that farmers today do not rely exclusively on the extension agent for information. The Internet, private crop consultants, industry organizations, companies, other universities' extension services and other sources of information have proliferated over the years, placing most information as close as the nearest computer modem.
This new reality will no doubt disappoint some and frustrate others. The "traditional" extension services have done an excellent job of bringing the latest information to producers.
But the bottom line is that it's just not realistic to try to dial back the calendar to when extension agents were readily available to help with any and all issues.
In a perfect world with a perfect budget picture, that might be possible. But even then, to thrive and grow the overall body of knowledge, extension services would still have to change how they serve agriculture.
In many ways, the extension services face the same new reality many other institutions and industries must face. Administrators and staff must embrace that change and aim for a better extension service.
Either that, or they can stand still and hope for the best.