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Published October 15, 2012, 09:50 AM

Is extension still relevant?

Some question if extension remains relevant in a world dominated by the Internet, a world in which farmers can turn to many sources for information.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

FARGO, N.D. — A framed newspaper advertisement hangs in the office of Chris Boerboom, director of the North Dakota State University Extension Service. The ad, which features Boerboom’s father, a Minnesota farmer, dates from 1962 and promotes fertilizer sold by a Minnesota farm supply company of which Cornelius Boerboom was a customer.

That ad is a relic from a bygone era, a time when farmers still were adjusting to commercial fertilizer and learning the value of it.

Today, skeptics wonder if the century-old extension service is a relic, too. They question if extension remains relevant in a world dominated by the Internet, a world in which farmers can turn to many sources for information.

The skeptics are wrong, Chris Boerboom says.

“There’s a lot information available and a lot of places to get it. But we’re still the place to go when you want reliable, unbiased information,” he says.

Though farmers can work with agronomists and chemical companies, producers still need impartial expertise “to help them tie it all together” profitably, he says.

But the extension service’s value isn’t always an easy sell, particularly at a time when governments are struggling with budget problems, says Barry Dunn, dean of South Dakota State University’s College of Agriculture & Biological Sciences and director of extension in the state.

“We have to prove ourselves every day, that we really are the safe, trusted, unbiased, scientific place to go for information,” Dunn says.

A year ago, in response to big federal and state budget cuts, his organization completed a massive restructuring. South Dakota Extension county offices were closed, and 110 extension county agents were let go. They were replaced with eight regional offices and 65 new extension field specialists.

The reorganization isn’t popular with everyone in South Dakota, but on balance has gone well, Dunn says.

North Dakota, Minnesota and Montana all continue to operate traditional county offices. Officials in the three states tell Agweek that they have no plans to move away from that.

“We’re continuing to offer county-based offices to support the needs of our counties,” says Larry Brence, administrator of Montana State University Extension Service’s Eastern Region.

Beverly Durgan, dean of University of Minnesota Extension, also says county offices in her state will remain open.

In North Dakota, “I can’t see any reason why we would change,” Boerboom says.

Electronic age

Extension officials in North Dakota, Montana, South Dakota and Minnesota all say they’re offering more online, electronic help to producers.

In Minnesota, “We’re adapting to the changing needs of producers and the ag community,” Durgan says.

Many Minnesota agriculturalists have smart phones and other mobile communication devices, and Minnesota extension is responding in kind, she says.

For instance, Minnesota farmers can receive text message alerts about pest outbreaks.

In Montana, extension service officials are making greater use of webinars. That way, state specialists don’t spend so much time on the road traveling from meeting to meeting, Brence says.

South Dakota extension increasingly stresses online education, including its electronic IGrow learning modules that can be added or revamped as needed.

“It gives us a nimbleness the old system just didn’t have,” Dunn says.

Boerboom says North Dakota extension always is looking for “new ways to get information out there. These new technologies are just a mechanism.”

By the numbers

Extension services in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana receive money from four sources: federal, state, county government and grants and partnerships.

The percentage contributed by each source varies by state. Extension in all four states would receive less federal funding if sequestration, or automatic federal budget cuts should occur, officials say.

South Dakota extension’s budget has fallen to $11.5 million in 2012 from $12.6 million in 2009.

Today, the organization has 141 full-time-equivalent positions (FTEs), roughly 45 less than a year ago.

Minnesota extension has 650 FTEs and an annual budget of $70 million. The state of Minnesota’s budget problems cut into funding for extension in the state, but state funding remained level this year.

“We were fortunate. I always tell people, it’s kind of pathetic I’m happy we have level funding,” Durgan says.

Minnesota extension actually is hiring more employees, refilling positions lost to an early retirement program.

“We’re in a good place to be rehiring,” Durgan says.

But the ag economy’s strength complicates Minnesota extension’s efforts in refilling those positions, especially for jobs in agronomy and other much-in-demand fields, she says.

The Montana Extension Service has 114 FTEs and an annual budget of $17.8 million.

Because of budget pressures, “The past five years have been tough,” Brence says.

The organization has relied on attrition, much of it among state specialists, to hold down spending, he says.

“I think we’re weak on specialists,” he says.

Expansion, cooperation

North Dakota extension has about 170 FTEs and an annual budget of $25 million.

The state’s strong economy, a reflection of good times in both agriculture and energy, has been a huge help to extension in the state, Boerboom says.

He notes that the extension service will be adding a new home economist position in Dunn County, in the state’s oil patch.

Dunn Country’s rapid growth has stressed its school system and created more demand for instruction in subjects such as health, nutrition and affordable housing, says County Commissioner Daryl Dukert.

“We have a lot of need on the home living side,” he says.

The position, which county officials hope will be filled by early next year, will be funded by a combination of state and federal money, he says.

North Dakota and Minnesota, whose joint border includes the fertile Red River Valley, share funding for four specialist positions. Two of the specialists work on sugar beets and one in potatoes; the two crops are grown on both sides of the Red River. The fourth specialist works with nutrition and wellness.

“The state lines are pretty thin,” Durgan says.

Farm kid leads extension

Boerboom, 50, grew up in Marshall, Minn., on a corn, soybean and beef cattle operation. His father was an early proponent of growing soybeans.

The family land is rented out today.

Chris Boerboom worked previously as a weed specialist with University of Wisconsin Extension.

In January 2010, he joined NDSU extension as an assistant director for agriculture and natural resources and district director of five southeast North Dakota counties.

In January of this year, he was named state interim director, succeeding Duane Hauck, who retired after 35.5 years with the organization.

This spring, the “interim” was dropped from his title.

Boerboom likes the job so far.

“North Dakota’s good. Because of the size, everybody knows everybody,” he says.

He praises the State Board of Agricultural Research and Education, the duties of which include responsibility for the NDSU Extension Service. SBARE’s members consist of NDSU officials, agriculturalists and legislators.

“Kudos to SBARE. It can really focus attention of the needs of extension and the needs of agriculture. It’s an amazing system. I don’t know of any other state that has a process like it,” Boerboom says.

Generational turn

North Dakota extension is experiencing a wave of retirements of baby boomers, the roughly 75 million people born between 1946 and 1964.

Extension officials in Minnesota, South Dakota and Montana say the trend isn’t as pronounced in their states.

In two years, North Dakota has filled 32 county positions, many of them held formerly by agents who retired.

One of the new agents is Penny Nester, Kidder County agent for agriculture and natural resources.

She grew up in Reeder, N.D., in the southwest part of the state, on a small grain and beef cattle operation.

Nester, 29, was a 4-H member as a child, and both her mother and grandmother were 4-H leaders. 4-H youth development is one of the six areas in which extension works.

“4-H and extension were a big part of my life growing up,” Nester says

She later spent 3.5 years as a county agent with South Dakota extension before losing her job in its restructuring. She took her position with North Dakota extension in the summer of 2011.

County agents always “need to be open to learning new things,” she says.

Often, county agents can be a conduit between producers with questions and state extension specialists with answers, she says.

In searching for new agents, North Dakota extension wants people with “a great personality, to become engaged with the community, to have those interpersonal skills. We want to combine that with good technical knowledge,” Boerboom says.

Having a farm background isn’t essential, but “it makes things a little easier at the beginning” for new agents, he says.

North Dakota extension is committed to its new, young agents.

“We’re trying to help these new agents get up to speed,” he says, noting that many are holding their first full-time job.

“They’re doing a good job,” he says.

Despite massive changes in agriculture, “Our overall mission is still the same,” Boerboom says. “Our job is to be a catalyst to find solutions. They’re different today than they were 10 years ago, and they’ll be different 10 years down the road.”

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