Decision Time on the Cooperative Extension Service

July, 2018

Lincoln -- Let me preface this post with a few kind words about the Cooperative Extension Service, because a few paragraphs down there will be unkind words.

Extension is an important part of my life. I was a charter member of the Rock Creek Ranchers 4-H Club (its first president, actually), made up of farm boys around Davey. We're still in touch six decades later and the club is still going. I remember unloading cattle for the county and state fairs at the north dock of the old 4-H barns at the fairgrounds in Lincoln, with the help of county agents Emery Nelson and Cyril Bish, and later with Allan Boettcher. My father's farming methods were admired by county agents, who brought foreign visitors to our farm to demonstrate good Nebraska farming practices. My mother was a leader of a county home extension club, as was my aunt, who graduated from the original NU "School of Agriculture" in 1922. Home extension agents and graduate students visited our family as part of their nutrition research, circa 1949. Growing up, I seldom missed a Tractor Power and Safety Day demonstration at the Ag Campus in Lincoln.

Later, in my professional work, I came to admire the funding model of the Cooperative Extension Service: a combination of federal, state, and local funds, with policy input from each level. This is "cooperative federalism" at its best. Many other government programs could benefit from adopting this model.

But in more recent times, I've heard grumbling about the Extension Service, that its role has been taken over by agribusiness salespeople who know more about their subjects than do Extension agents. I've experienced disappointment along these lines myself, when I consult Extension NebGuides that parrot a manufacturer's line and even refer readers to the company. One farmer asked me why he should be paying taxes for a service that others are providing free, if it's all the same information. The same is happening in other states, too.

There is no better analysis of what is happening to the Extension Service than a 2015 paper written perceptively from the inside. It tackles these and other difficult questions. It makes a case that Extension agents are needed to train the salespeople, but notes honestly that the company reps are out to make profits, not to watch out for broader public goods that range all the way from environmental protection, to rural health and nutrition, even to the economic viability of the agriculture sector. Not to mention that the salespeoples' services are not really free. The paper even looks at the possibility of ending Extension as we have known it, or putting it on a fee basis, or privatizing it.

The 2018 U.S. Farm Bill, now in conference committee to iron out differences between House and Senate versions, will give the Extension Service a reprieve. The Senate version (a bipartisan product) is the better of the two, by far, but its fate is uncertain due to ideological warfare and unprecedented political positioning in the House.

Neither the Senate nor House bill offers a vision for the Extension Service to meet the challenges of the times. Some of us working on the bills as citizens have tried to advance the idea of unleashing the Extension Service to combat the nation's obesity and diabetes epidemic, and to lend a hand in developing jobs and businesses in local and regional food markets that are poised to take off with the right direction and support.* Growing demand for healthy food can help repopulate rural America.

These suggestions have been politely applauded, then ignored in the rush to address issues more politically salient and more amenable to immediate monetizing by those who feed at the farm bill trough.

One of the strengths of Extension, however, is that it does not depend entirely on federal leadership. The State of Nebraska itself could step up and unleash the Extension service, with its formidable infrastructure, to tackle Nebraska problems that current agribusiness, health care, and non-profit interests can't or won't.

The next governor should convene a summit, within state government, of the state's Economic Forecasting Advisory Board, the Tax Commissioner, the directors of Agriculture, Health, and the Budget Division, the Vice Chancellor for IANR, and the Dean of Extension to develop a vision for the Extension Service and a budget to support and deliver it. The summit would deal with realities such as the need for agricultural diversification in view of the loss of international markets for traditional Nebraska products; and with the largely unacknowledged fact that exported U.S. processed foods have spread an obesity and diabetes crisis across the globe.

Here's one summit discussion topic: “Feeding our nation well, not the world badly.” This would require an integrated view of Extension's nutrition and production mandates, now sorely lacking; and require getting the Nebraska farm economy positioned to maximize comparative advantage, where it is now not. The decline of the agriculture economy in the state is beyond serious; it is an imminent crisis.

Three decades ago my friend and former colleague Hans Brisch,** then an NU vice president, convinced the state to invest $50 million in new state support for NU research. He got a conservative governor's attention and the funds sailed through the legislature because it was seen as essential to the future of Nebraska. Something similar could be done again with the right leadership, because the need is even greater.
* We also have been advocating for increased conservation and soil health measures, and to consider topsoil loss a national infrastructure priority.

** Dr. Brisch (1940-2006) went on to become Chancellor of the University of Oklahoma, where he left a great legacy.