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Extension services shrink with budgets


Capital Press

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- Veteran dairyman Bernie Faber has lived through good times and bad times in the dairy industry. At all times, however, the Oregon State University Extension Service has been there to help.

Not so today.

"It comes to a point now where we know they are not available, so we don't even call," Faber said.

Faber is philosophical -- to a point -- as he assesses the circumstances that have conspired to leave the state with one dairy extension agent.

"I think, like everything else in this economy, we're going to have to suffer through this, and as long as dairy is treated on an equal basis with other programs, I'm fine with that," Faber said. "But sometimes I wonder if we're getting our share."

OSU College of Agricultural Sciences Dean Sonny Ramaswamy said if he had his way, the state would have more than one dairy agent.

But with state legislators slashing 10 percent of extension's general fund operating budget in the last biennium and considering a 25 percent budget cut on top of that, college administrators are reluctant to fill vacant positions.

Meeting budget cuts through attrition, Ramaswamy said, has become the preferred strategy.

Dairy, Ramaswamy said, is simply an unintended victim of that system.

"Animal science, and dairy in particular, has been clobbered because of the budget cuts, more so than others, in part because of the luck of the draw," Ramaswamy said. "They had critical people leave.

"In dairy, we're in deep trouble," he said.

The situation at Oregon State University is far from unique among universities around the West.

Washington State University Extension lost 23 percent of its state funding at the start of the 2009-11 biennium. Gov. Chris Gregoire has told WSU Extension administration to expect a 25 percent reduction in the coming biennium.

At the University of California-Davis, extension has gone from about 500 advisors in the 1980s to 225 today. University extension officials as of earlier this month were still awaiting proposed cuts in Gov. Jerry Brown's 2011-12 budget. But they are expecting to be down even more in the next budget cycle.

State funding for the University of Idaho's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences for fiscal 2010-11 dropped by nearly 20 percent from the previous year's -- from $28.2 million to $22.6 million. The college responded by cutting 70 faculty positions, closing one of the college's 12 research and extension centers and significantly reducing work at a second center. The 70 faculty positions represent 20 percent of all college and extension positions.

At universities throughout the West, officials are juggling short- and long-range plans and hoping one day to rebuild the system -- if not in the likeness of its past, at least to a level that meets the changing needs of agriculture.

"We have to ask ourselves if, come two or three years when this thing turns around, can we resurrect this?" OSU's Ramaswamy said. "And how do you resurrect it?"

As part of their long-range plan, OSU College of Agricultural Sciences administrators are redefining how to meet the needs of constituents, and what those needs are.

"It would be great if we could do all things for everybody -- if we could work on chickens, sheep and goats," Ramaswamy said. "But we can't. We need to focus."

WSU's College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resources Sciences Dean Dan Bernardo, echoed Ramaswamy's comments.

"I don't think it's necessary to have somebody who can answer every agricultural question in every county," Bernardo said. "We can't staff that, and that's just not practical."

Nor is it the best use of resources, he said.

"We can't really think about this as what extension looked like 10 years ago and what it looks like today," Bernardo said. "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."

"As it is, we don't support all 220 commodities (grown in Oregon)," Ramaswamy said. "We can't."

Ramaswamy has embraced the idea of specializing in a few areas and advising clients to look elsewhere for answers in other disciplines.

"There are things we already don't work on," Ramaswamy said. "(Growers) can very easily go to our neighbors to the south or to the north or to the east for that information."

As part of his new directive, Ramaswamy wants OSU's newly combined Livestock and Rangeland Resources Department to focus on grass-fed systems. The idea, he said, is that Oregon can become "a go-to state" for information on grass-fed systems.

"We are going to carve out a niche. We're going to put our shingle out. We're going to be the world's best place for grass-fed systems," he said.

"We are going to work with others, too," he said, referring to producers who employ traditional animal confinement systems. "If questions come to us, we may not do the research, but we will get the information from other states and provide that."

In the short term, Ramaswamy's plans for the new department -- and plans to hire an additional dairy extension agent -- are on hold.

The College of Agricultural Sciences currently is looking for an administrator for the new Livestock and Rangeland Resources Department. Ramaswamy said he wants to provide the new administrator -- which he hopes to have on board this summer -- the autonomy to hire a new dairy extension agent.

"The opportunity to fill some positions is an important carrot in attracting the kind of leadership we want for the new unit," College of Agricultural Sciences Executive Associate Dean Bill Boggess said.

"What I want to do is resurrect that department," Ramaswamy said. "I am committed to making it one of the best departments and to support the work that is done by our very huge dairy industry here in this state.

"Can we afford to have three or four agents?" he asked. "Probably not."

Under the current directive from the governor's office, July 1 Ramaswamy could be forced to eliminate more than 60 faculty positions of the approximately 250 in the extension agricultural and natural resources program, the experiment station and the College of Agricultural Sciences.

The cuts would come on top of 24 faculty and 36 support positions eliminated in the current biennium.

Maintaining support for even major commodity areas under those directives will be difficult, Ramaswamy said.

"I hope the governor and the Legislature see the value the statewides bring as part of the research agenda, the innovation agenda and the jobs agenda for the state and that there is a clear linkage between that," he said.

Capital Press reporters Matthew Weaver, Tim Hearden and Dave Wilkins contributed to this story.

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