University Extension Service to lose some state, federal funding

Mary Bjerke is more than thankful for what the University’s Extension Service has done for her and her husband since they moved to Bemidji, Minn., in 1971 to open a family resort.

The Extension Service – the major outreach arm of the University – provided the couple with practical knowledge on subjects such as marketing, promotion and environmental maintenance. Bjerke said without the services, the resort would not have been nearly as successful as it is.

But Bjerke and others across the state are concerned some services might be in danger of being cut following an announcement this month that the Extension Service will reorganize and condense the department.

The plan involves shrinking the number of Extension Service offices funded by state and federal sources to 20. The Extension Service currently has offices in each of Minnesota’s 87 counties. The restructuring, which should be complete by January 2004, will leave counties and local governments to choose which programs they are willing to pay for.

Extension Service officials said the move will make the department more efficient, strengthen its core mission and provide a “cafeteria” of services from which communities can choose.

On May 20, Bjerke and approximately 20 other citizens filled a Beltrami County board meeting to voice support for keeping the Extension Services.

Bjerke, who has participated in Extension Service programs such as 4-H and homemaking for more than 30 years, said the Extension Service is a resource communities need.

“To me, a rural area without Extension is like a fish without water,” Bjerke said.

The discussion is happening around the state as local governments look to stretch every public dollar.

Beltrami County Extension Board Commissioner Vicki Haugen said the approximately $100,000 the county funds annually into the Extension Service will likely lower because of looming cuts in state funding to the county.

Haugen said the emotion-filled board meeting was most heartfelt for the future of 4-H, a popular youth program provided by the Extension Service.

“There are a lot of feelings that 4-H has been important,” she said. “Regardless of cost, people want to invest in that.”

Haugen said she knew the Extension Service needed to change and she is optimistic the changes will be positive for Beltrami and other rural communities.

“I think it’s a wonderful place to start,” she said. “The overriding thing I hear is to try and keep Extension in tact.”

Extension too broad?

The youth program 4-H has become a family tradition for many generations around the state, and Lyle Onken is one of many beneficiaries.

The Murray County Extension committee commissioner believes the Extension Service had a bigger impact in the southwestern Minnesota county years ago than it does today.

His parents remember former Extension Service directors visiting the family farm, but Onken said he now thinks the Extension Service has broadened its scope of services so much they have lost first-name basis with users – and lost many longtime supporters because of it.

The loss of close relationships in the farming community might be a reason many people no longer value the University service, he said.

“I think over the years they may have lost touch with real agriculture,” he said.

Now as Murray County and other communities in the state begin discussions about how to pay for services under the new changes, Onken said his community might be reluctant to provide funding for the Extension Service programs besides 4-H.

“At this point, there are not enough customers to justify a store,” he said.

Onken said it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Extension Service has benefited citizens, but many Murray County citizens only know of the University outreach program location through 4-H.

As dollars are spread thin everywhere, many communities might not have the means to justify spending on Extension Service programming in the future.

The Extension Service has a long tradition of receiving financial support at the county level, but as the economy slid after Sept. 11, 2001, financial support from counties dwindled.

“Counties were coming to us saying the current funding arrangement may not work for us anymore,” said Dr. Charles Casey, the Extension Service’s dean and director. “I didn’t want to lose counties completely. This allows them to set some priorities and fund as much as they can.”

Branden Peterson welcomes comments at [email protected]