Rural areas feel cuts in Extension Service

The new Extension Service centralizes assistance into 18 regional centers rather than individual counties.

Nathan Hall

Before Jan. 5, if residents of Sanborn, Minn., had a question about hoof-and-mouth disease, the University could give them an answer in Cottonwood County.

Now the people of this southwestern Minnesota city have to make a 55-mile drive to Worthington, Minn., to find those answers. The change is because of a reorganization of the University Extension Service, which offers agricultural expertise and research outreach to rural counties.

The new Extension Service, streamlined for increased efficiency, centralizes assistance into 18 regional centers rather than individual counties. If counties still want to keep their regular extension office and staff, they now have to fund it themselves.

University officials say the overhaul was necessary as lagging revenue and a still-shaky economy reduced operational budgets. But lawmakers and concerned citizens have criticized the move, saying the University philosophically abandoned its long-standing relationship with rural communities.

“They’re taking jobs out of the small towns and putting them in the cities where they don’t need them as bad,” said Glen Graff, a Sanborn-area beef farmer.

Last October, Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, proposed legislation to take $9.6 million – roughly 35 percent of Extension Service’s state funding – and distribute the funds among the rural counties in the form of a grant.

Urdahl said the problem is not in a lack of money but how the University allocates its funding.

“It’s open to question if they’re fulfilling their mission anymore,” Urdahl said. “You’re taking the ‘extend’ out of ‘extension.’ “

Extension Service Dean Charles Casey said he strongly disagrees with Urdahl’s idea. “If the counties can’t let them do research and run the programs, our ability to compete will be severely compromised,” he said.

Casey said great care was taken to protect the program’s educational research efforts regardless of a particular county’s ability or willingness to pay.

“All citizens deserve and will have access to our services,” Casey said.

The program is also posting more information on its Web site, which generated more than 7 million hits last year.

As a public land grant institution, the University receives land and money from the federal government in exchange for greater responsibilities.

For 2003, the Extension Service received $62 million – $27 million from the state, $16 million from the individual counties, $10.5 million from the federal government and $9 million in grants, contracts, sales and fees. In 2004, the Extension Service’s budget was reduced $7 million.

“That tends to make you do things a little bit differently,” said Charles Muscoplat, dean of the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences. Muscoplat compared the plan to a similar successful shift at Indiana University.

“This has been the goal all across the country as budgets have been creeping downward Ö so a lot of people are watching to see how this goes as we might become the leader on this one,” Muscoplat said.

The change to a regional model has not been abrupt either, said Patricia Morreim, an Extension Service professor headquartered in Andover, Minn.

“We’ve been moving in this direction for over two years now,” said Morreim, who said the reorganization is in its second phase.

“We don’t have county directors anymore and some people have a longer commute to their worksite, but we still have a full docket of programs out here,” Morreim said.

Michael Schmitt, a dean of the College of Agricultural, Food and Environmental Sciences, said he believes the restructuring will lead to a more specialized and faster information clearinghouse for Minnesota. But he said some bugs first have to be worked out.

“There have been a lot of people affected,” Schmitt said. “We did just give everyone a new job, after all.”

Doug Sandstrom, a Department of Natural Resources enforcement officer, has been working with the Extension Service in Longville, Minn., for more than 26 years. He said he is unhappy with the recent losses his town took, calling the program crucial to educating property owners about improving water quality and good environmental stewardship.

“The point is to get this research out to the people,” Sandstrom said. He said the Extension Service in Cass County now consists of a part time 4-H instructor instead of its previous additional work with social services.