Minnesota county cutting extension

The Polk County (Minn.) Commission is getting an earful of criticism for its decision to cut the county's last agricultural extension agent, his office and the office manager in McIntosh, Minn.

The Polk County (Minn.) Commission is getting an earful of criticism for its decision to cut the county's last agricultural extension agent, his office and the office manager in McIntosh, Minn.

Russ Severson, who was the county ag extension agent in Crookston, Minn., for 22 years before transferring into the state-funded regional office in April, says he only learned after the fact the commission plans to cut the last county agent, Jim Stordahl.

It would mean Stordahl and office manager Donna Ray Carlson will lose their jobs and the office in McIntosh will close.

"What I told the commission is that it's pretty unfortunate when one of the largest agricultural counties in the state of Minnesota, which gets over 50 percent of their net tax revenue from agricultural land, has decided to 100 percent eliminate the agricultural part of the extension budget," Severson says.

He says the county, so long as it is divided into East Polk and West Polk for agricultural extension purposes, has 1.2 million acres and leads the state in production of several crops, including sugar beets.


But it's simply a budget necessity, says Bill Montague of Crookston, chairman of the five-member commission.

The county needs to cut its budget for the next year from the projected $20 million in spending to the $18 million in projected taxes levied, Montague says. Two rounds of cuts got it to $18.5 million, and the commission plans to meet budget by spending $500,000 of reserve funds, he says.

It's by far the toughest budgeting session in his eight years on the commission, Montague says.

"We cut a number of departments; in fact, most departments got cut, and extension was among them. We have made so many cuts in the past with extension, there wasn't much left."

Cutting agents

As recently as the early 1990s, there were six ag extension agents in the county, Montague says. The cost was shared between the county and the state university system. Five years ago, looking for their own budget cuts, the state and the university system moved to regional extension offices, leaving counties to fund local extension agents as they chose, Montague says.

When Severson switched to the regional office last spring, the commission kept his county slot open. Stordahl, the county's last ag agent, will see his job cut within about 90 days. The commission has to complete its budget by mid-December, Montague says.

After hearing two hours of discussion from Severson and some farmers, the commission has decided to reconsider a bit.


"We are going to retain the 4-H coordinator, and we are looking at what kind of support staff will be needed for that, and that may affect the McIntosh office," Montague says.

Anything's possible, he says, but it's not likely Stordahl's job will be retained.

Surprising news

"I was kind of upset they kind of did this, making a decision to cut the ag extension except for 4-H, without letting too many people know," says Elliott Solheim, who farms wheat, sugar beets, corn and soybeans east of Crookston. "My main thing was that the communication could have been better."

Severson says he's convinced the commission kept it quiet because it knew how controversial it would be.

Montague says that's not the case, but admits the commission could have done a better job letting people know about its decision to cut ag extension.

"It's a cumbersome process," he says, because it involves the state university system's memorandum of agreement with the county. "We may have done some things differently if we had it to do over again," he says. "We certainly could have involved the (county) extension committee. I guess, in hindsight, we would have done that."

Stordahl is convinced a county ag extension office still is needed.


"In a given year, we have over 4,000 people who use extension," he says. "It varies from farmers who want to know information on soil fertility or crop varieties, to homeowners with questions on lawn issues."

Solheim says it was clear that commissioners think the ag extension offices aren't as valuable as they used to be. Montague, for example, says the Internet is now a source farmers can use to get information.

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