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Communicate the Value of Extension

In case you haven't noticed, extension is in trouble …

If you're concerned that Extension programs in your county may be targeted for cuts during these tough economic times, you're not alone.

Rick Klemme, dean of the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension Service, believes what happened in Jefferson County in November is at risk of happening in several more counties in the next couple of years.

"We've been complacent for a long time because our county budgets have never been under this much pressure," Klemme admits. "I fully expected this to have happened in more counties this year."

Tough choices

The weak economy is leaving many county governments to deal with budget shortfalls. Some county boards are choosing to trim budgets and avoid cutting programs including Extension, while others are electing to borrow funds to make up the difference and hope for better times. The Jefferson County Board chose to slash funding for programs including Extension to help shore up budget deficits and limit borrowing.

Klemme believes counties that choose to cut services like Extension are really losing out. State funds pay for 60% of Extension salaries and benefits while county governments pay 40%.

"It's really too bad that they did this (in Jefferson County) because not only are they cutting Extension's valuable services, they're turning their backs on state funding which leverages county Extension programs," Klemme explains.

He also believes county residents are losing the most in terms of valuable educational resources.

"Extension is about a lot more than just 4-H," Klemme says. "Farmers learn how to manage their crops, their dairy cattle and their farms more efficiently because of Extension which makes them more profitable, but Extension also empowers urban as well as rural people to build new skills and manage their finances better. Our community development agents work with counties and local governments to develop strategic planning to help that community grow. It's valuable to actually have a person who lives in the county help do the planning because they live there. Plus it saves the county from having to pay a consultant to come in from out of the area to help them plan their growth."

Because newspapers don't find these types of programs exciting Klemme believes Extension at the state level has their work cut out for them.

"What this really means at the state level is we need to pull together the county administrators, county board chairs, and county Extension people and tell our story," he says. "We need to tell them about the value of Extension. It's important to build relationships and listen to your funding partner, especially when they have a hold on the dollars."

Communication, Klemme says, helped avert a similar situation from happening in Columbia County a few years ago.

"One of my favorite quotes I got from listening to Columbia County Board Chair Deb Wopat is when she said 'Extension is a nice program to have.' That sent shivers down my spine. We've had good successes in Columbia County."

Get involved

Dairy and livestock farmers, cash crop farmers, 4-H members and parents can all get involved in communicating Extension's story.

"People can be won over, but you have to be proactive," Klemme says. "You have to have programs that they (county board members) know about that they can relate to."
Klemme notes that there are far fewer farmers on county boards than there were 10 or 20 years ago.

"That's not going to change until April 2010 when we have county board elections," Klemme says. "What we've seen in Jefferson County is a renewed interest in running for the county board among farmers."

But 2010 county budgets will be approved in the fall of 2009. Klemme says there are a number of things farmers can do to keep what happened in Jefferson County from happening to their county Extension program.

"Get to know your county board member," Klemme says. "Get to know your county Extension program and be able to communicate its value. It's really important to build a relationship with your supervisor, talk about the value of Extension, that you're working with Extension agents and so on. Those are the kinds of things that make sense to me."

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