The recession that dealt a body blow to the U.S. economy left its mark on the budgets of land grant universities and state and federal government research programs. Extension programs did not escape.

Extension administrators across the nation could have tried to maintain current programs, trimming their budgets and hoping that funding would return when the economy recovered.

Or they could reinvent the Extension Service for the 21st century, replacing an outdated model that had been in place for decades and was reaching the end of its useful life.

Most administrators chose the latter. At Washington State University, for example, the Extension Service has undertaken an intensive process that has generated high-tech, web-based tools that help the state’s farmers make the tough decisions. Using WSU Extension tools, a farmer can see how individual wheat varieties performed in various parts of the state, when to irrigate their crops and when to expect frost. These and other features are available to every farmer.

This is not your father’s Extension Service.

“County agents are a thing of the past,” WSU Extension director Rich Koenig told the Capital Press. In their place is a battalion of specialists who concentrate on high-dollar crops such as small grains, tree fruit, vegetables and grapes. Though other crops are still supported, it is with fewer people.

Budget cuts were the driving force of the changes, but they most likely would have happened anyway. Times change, and so does technology. With the Internet and other high-tech tools available, the old Extension model would have become outdated no matter what happened to the budgets.

At WSU, state and county contributions to Extension shrank. To make up for the reductions, commodity groups stepped forward and provided funds to pay for the research they need to stay competitive in the world market. For example, the Washington Grain Commission and the state’s tree fruit industry have directly funded tens of millions of dollars for research through the university and Extension.

Similar transformations have been taking place in Western states such as Idaho, Oregon and California, as growers have recognized the need for research on their crops and provided more funding directly to Extension.

Now that the economy is improving, don’t expect Extension to return to the old model. Because of budget cuts at the federal level and inflation and other increased costs, the overall footprint of the Extension Service has shrunk by about one-third.

Expect Extension to continue to work with farmers and ranchers to provide them with the information they need to prosper. They’ll do that face-to-face, through the Internet or through crop advisers and agronomists, who will work with them to provide the most up-to-date information in a timely and useful manner.

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