Growers plead to keep crop specialist position
Larry Smith retires from University of Idaho Extension
By DAVE WILKINS
Some North Idaho farmers are worried that state budget woes could leave them without a University of Idaho Extension crops specialist.
Larry Smith, 65, will retire from the position Saturday, Oct. 31. Because of university budget concerns, there's no guarantee he'll be replaced.
Officials with the UI's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences haven't determined whether Smith's position will be filled, but they acknowledge that it will leave a void in agronomic expertise in North Idaho if it's left vacant.
"Larry is really the last UI agronomist in the north," college spokesman Bill Loftus said.
Smith's departure comes at a time of state budget cutbacks for all agencies, including the university and its extension program. Many positions have been allowed to remain vacant as people retire or leave for other reasons.
A group of farmers in the region plans to write to UI President Duane Nellis, requesting that the extension crops position be retained.
"This is a position that needs to be filled," said Robert Blair, president of the Nez Perce County Farm Bureau.
Smith served Nez Perce County, where he was based, and the surrounding region, including Lewis, Idaho, Latah and Clearwater counties.
The extension crops specialist has provided services such as bringing university research to the farm and providing unbiased, professional opinions regarding farm products and farming practices, area growers say.
State budget holdbacks have forced the university to cut nearly 17 percent, or $4.7 million, from the agricultural and research extension service appropriation budget, officials said. Three research and extension centers have been targeted for possible closure.
A 30-member task force that includes industry stakeholders, county commissioners, legislators and university faculty has been formed to restructure the extension program. The group will meet for the first time in Moscow in early November.
Blair said he believes extension is taking a disproportionately large share of university budget cuts.
"I think there are other areas in the university that could be cut," he said.
"Our land-grant universities were designed to provide research and extension. If the positions are not filled, all you have left is another liberal arts college."
Smith said it was never his intention to leave during a budget crunch. It's just the way things worked out.
"I just felt that I was ready to retire," he said. "I look forward to doing some new things."
He said he worries about the integrity of the university's agricultural programs with all the cutbacks.
With a shrinking budget and fewer people, the university is focusing its research and extension efforts on the state's big commodities -- sugar beets, potatoes, wheat, forage and livestock, Smith said.
Minor crops such as rapeseed, canola, mustard and safflower will likely go by the wayside, he said.
"There probably won't be the money to work with those commodities," Smith said. "I don't know who would fill the void."
Smith said extension has a vital mission to fulfill and he would still recommend agricultural education as a career choice for interested students.
"I think extension still has a future," he said. "I'm optimistic about agriculture."
Staff writer Dave Wilkins is based in Twin Falls. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.