Rural service tradition at risk

Alan Bjerga

Editor’s note: Although the bulk of the University’s Twin Cities campus resources are devoted to Twin Cities student and community needs, one of the University’s responsibilities as a land-grant institution is to serve communities statewide. But as state demographics and budget priorities change, so does the character of University outreach programs. This is the first of a four-part series examining the services provided to outstate Minnesota by University extension services and experiment stations — the main University resources in rural areas — and the future of those services.

In 1862, the Morrill Act created the land-grant university system, donating public lands in each state to “provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts.” The U.S. congressional action established agricultural research and outreach as a priority in American university education.
Under the act, the University of Minnesota was designated as the state’s land-grant institution. Since then, support of agriculture has been deemed vital to the University’s service to the state, both at the main campus in Minneapolis-St. Paul and at outstate campuses in Duluth, Morris, Crookston and Waseca.
But in recent years declining outstate population and lessened economic clout in comparison to the Twin Cities and its suburbs meant that University commitment to outstate Minnesota had its limits. The Waseca campus closed in 1992 over the objections of those who felt the University’s commitment to agriculture was weakening. Reductions in services offered at outstate experiment stations and county extension offices have contributed to continuing concerns.
University budget restraints continue to take their toll on resources. And as federal, state and University funding priorities shift to the changing demands of a more urban state, some fear that a key part of the University’s land-grant commitment — the services provided to outstate Minnesota by its Twin Cities campus — is fading.
“My gravest fear is that the University is getting away from its original purpose as a land-grant institutition,” said Steve Wenzel, DFL-Little Falls, Minnesota House Agriculture Committee chairman.
“Agriculture is a crucial part of the whole land-grant philosophy. It’s why the University is the central university in the state today,” said Regent Stanley Sahlstrom, a lifelong farmer and former chancellor of the University of Minnesota–Crookston. “Funding must be sufficient to adequately support outreach” to rural communities, he said.
With minimal funding growth in agriculture programs and rural Minnesota wielding less political strength because of a dwindling population, the future of the University’s outstate presence poses daunting challenges. But those who coordinate programs to help farmers and rural communities are determined to fulfill the University’s mission to support agriculture.
“The world is changing, we’re changing,” said College of Agriculture Dean Mike Martin. “We adjust the best that we can.”
The changing face of rural Minnesota
The shift in Minnesota’s population from rural to urban areas is a decades-old trend. The 1950 census reported that 54 percent of Minnesotans lived in urban areas; by 1990 the proportion had grown to 70 percent. All of the state’s population growth since World War II has been in urban areas; the number of Minnesotans living in towns of more than 2,500 has doubled, the number living on farms or in towns under 2,500 residents has remained stable at about 1.3 million.
Most of the state’s urban growth has been centered in the seven-county metropolitan area of Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Hennepin, Ramsey, Scott and Washington counties. The 1990 census showed for the first time that the majority of Minnesota’s population lives in the Metro Area, a development that gives the Twin Cities increased political and economic power.
Meanwhile, the number of farms in the state is declining. In the past decade the number of farms in Minnesota has dropped by more than 10 percent, while average farm size increased by the same portion. Both trends are expected to continue.
However, farming and agriculture-related industries still compose the largest sector of Minnesota’s economy. Agricultural products account for 17 percent of the state’s Gross Domestic Product, and when all agriculture-related activities such as transportation and processing of farm products are taken into account, the agriculture-related industry share of state GDP jumps to about 40 percent.
In terms of cash receipts received for agricultural products, Minnesota is the seventh-largest farming state in the United States. And though fewer people may be engaged in agriculture, the economic well-being of all Minnesotans remains strongly linked to the health of its agriculture.
“I always tell Becky Kelso (DFL-Shakopee, and chairwoman of the University of Minnesota Finance Division of the House Education Committee) that jobs in her district are the direct result of University research,” Martin said. “There’s a large malting facility in Shakopee (Rahr Malting Company) that malts high-quality barley, using a process developed at our experiment stations.
“Jobs in Shakopee are the result of experiment-station research,” Martin said. “There are similar stories across the state.”
The struggle for outstate support
While the majority of University students and funds are concentrated on the Twin Cities campus, to much of outstate Minnesota the most visible University presence comes through county extension services and experiment stations.
Throughout its history the University has been ahead of many other land-grant institutions in supporting agriculture. The University’s first experimental farm — formerly located along University Avenue between Oak Street and Prospect Park — was purchased in 1868, almost 20 years before the federal government provided funding for state experiment stations.
The Minnesota Extension Service, the major arm of the University’s statewide agricultural outreach, was created in 1909, four years before the federal government created extension services in every state. As provided for in the state extension service charter, every county in Minnesota has an extension office, offering free educational programs to its residents.
Those programs, which range from 4-H — an organization that has long been central to extension service to rural youth — to seminars on the proper use of manure, focus on improving farming practices and community development. They often play an important part in the economic growth of the communities they serve. “We really do help provide the research and education people in agriculture need to succeed in a competitive, diversified economy,” Martin said.
“There is an ethic of commitment to the community (by extension educators), and to programs that will continue,” said Katherine Fennelly, director and dean the Minnesota Extension Service.
Also contributing to outstate assistance are the Minnesota Experiment Stations. Six fully-staffed stations and several field sites across the state serve as places where University researchers can complete projects focused on area farmers’ needs. Agricultural Extension Station administrator Marilyn DeLong said, “We’re an integral part of rural communities. Our staff are citizens as well as researchers, and they’re catalysts for improvement.”
Although University support for rural communities through agricultural extension and experiment stations is both legally mandated and supported by University officials, funding for those programs has remained stagnant. Total funding for Minnesota Extension Service programs since the 1987-88 fiscal year (the most recent year figures are available for both the extension service and experiment stations) when adjusted for inflation, increased less than 1 percent per year for the past decade, while experiment station appropriations have actually declined by 7 percent.
Departmental funding woes are nothing new at the University, though some programs have fared better than others. For example, at the College of Liberal Arts, an administrative unit with an annual budget about the size of extension and experiment budgets combined, resources have increased by 8 percent in the past five years, while resources devoted to outstate extension and experiment station services has remained steady.
Part of the funding problem for experiment and extension services has been the loss of aid from outside the University. Many programs, including CLA, are funded almost exclusively through University allocations and revenues, while rural programs traditionally rely heavily upon state and federal aid. In the past decade federal funding for extension services fell by almost 8 percent, and went from providing one quarter of extension support to about one fifth. Federal support for experiment stations also declined, though the proportion was not as great.
While the decline in federal funding is being partially offset by stronger support from state and county governments, the largest growth in funding comes from income generated by the services themselves, often through user fees.
User fees generate revenue, but violate the spirit of free service stated in the original extension service act. Wenzel said that one traditionally free service that now has user fees is 4-H. “4-H booklets used to be free,” Wenzel said. “Now the kids have to pay for them. I had a mother a month ago come up to me who said ‘this keeps us away.’ Even a $2 fee for a basic 4-H workbook can be prohibitive for some rural families, Wenzel said.
“The families whose kids you want to be in 4-H are often the ones who can’t pay for it.”
User fees for children in 4-H is a less-than-ideal situation, Fennelly said, but in today’s budget climate it’s a reality. “We need to do a better job of raising funds for 4-H programs,” Fennelly said. “But it’s a very high priority program.”
Adjusting to new rural needs
The result of budget austerity in rural programs is more consolidation of services statewide and the offering of fewer programs in fewer places.
Regent Pat Spence, a former mayor of Little Falls, a central Minnesota community of 7,000, said that although University support for extension and experiment services is still important, the services will need to be more innovative in serving community needs.
“There will need to be more partnerships with other organizations,” Spence said, as well as more funding outside University and government sources. Grants from private sources for extension services have increased from $1.3 million to $3.5 million in the past three years, and Martin said grants are more actively lobbied for than in the past.
“It’s the goal of the regents to stretch the dollars as much as possible,” Spence said.
To reflect the changing needs of rural communities, the focus of extension and experiment services has been changing to include more community and family development projects.
“There is an entire rural culture that is becoming more diverse,” Martin said. “Rural families have different needs than in the past, and we do much more with programs that build stable families and communities now, and not so much with traditional ag education.”
University President Nils Hasselmo said rural services should reflect University strengths. “The University draws on issues of public health, youth and families now,” Hasselmo said. “Leadership development and long-range planning … are essential to the survival of rural communities,” he said.
A greater diversity of programs from county extension services makes more than demographic sense; it also yields political benefits, Martin said. “If we want to continue to serve outstate communities, we have to justify ourselves to urban communities, and that means we must continue to work harder to serve them,” Martin said.
And in many cases, urban and rural needs are growing more similar. College of Human Ecology administrator Beth Emshoff works with the Minnesota Extension Service on projects dealing family and community development, including programs that help children deal with divorce and nutrition programs for low-income families. Although the programs are not agriculture-specific, they also play an important role in University service to rural Minnesota.
“Outreach to greater Minnesota is more than agriculture,” Emshoff said. “Small family farms have families, and strong families are needed for rural areas to stay viable.”
Wenzel agrees that rural outreach needs to be a continued legislative and University priority, but notes that traditional agriculture-based programs are important. “I don’t criticize President Hasselmo or the regents because with downsizing and maintaining their research standards they’re in the toughest job there is. But they need to be reminded of the importance of agriculture to the state, and the University.”
Hasselmo said support for outstate Minnesota remains important to the University, while stressing that services need to reflect more than farm issues. As the need for a clean environment and for stable families become a concern common to both rural and urban areas, Hasselmo said, “It’s important to get an assessment of what the resources are … so communities can build on their strengths.
“It’s important that the expertise of the University be put toward rural areas as distinctions between urban and rural needs disappear,” Hasselmo said.
“We are there (in rural areas) to provide expertise and information, and to serve communities in ways that go beyond what has traditionally been done,” Hasselmo said.
Maintaining strong programs in rural outreach is in Minnesota’s best interests, Wenzel said. Sahlstrom added that it’s vital to the University’s essential character and mission.
“Sharing the products of research with the people of the state — that’s what a land-grant University does,” Sahlstrom said.

TOMORROW — A look at the Central Lakes Agricultural Center in Staples, and how an outstate University research site has adjusted to tight budgetary times.