Cooperative Extension, facing state funding cut, to trim local services

Posted February 22, 2016

The Cooperative Extension division of UW-Extension is facing a $3.6 million state funding cut to its annual budget, according to a press release from the division, and Pierce, St. Croix and Polk counties will not be spared.

The reduction, part of a $250 million cut to the entire UW System, will result in a reorganization of the division in which multiple counties are combined into focused areas. The physical offices will remain in each of the 72 counties in Wisconsin, but the counties in each area will share services. Pierce, St. Croix and Polk counties will become one service area.

Diana Alfuth, the horticulture educator for Pierce County, said that the end result will be a reduction in services offered for the community. She said that fewer classes and opportunities will mean that the community members looking for help will have to be more patient.

“If people have a question, right now they can call in at any time and they’re likely to get somebody,” Alfuth said. “They might have to wait a day or two to get their responses, and who is actually doing the responding may be different.”

Agriculture Agent Ryan Sterry of the St. Croix office said that the convenience of one-on-one support will be reduced as a result of services being decreased.

“For some field days and workshops, instead of offering in each of our three counties, we may be able to have only one or two for the area,” Sterry said in an email. “There will still be individual attention, but likely not as much as we cover more ground geographically.”

The area model could also have some positive effects. Sterry said that the agriculture and horticulture educators have worked together in Pierce and St. Croix counties before. He focused on dairy and livestock while his counterpart in Pierce County focused on agronomy.

“This specialization allowed us to be a little better in our fields of expertise, and then share that expertise,” Sterry said. “I see this sharing of expertise as a benefit as we move to a three-county area, but we don’t know how many of us there will be working in agriculture and horticulture.”

The cut is expected to cause the loss of 80 jobs across the state. Alfuth said that uncertainty over job stability is a major concern in the office.

“It’s kind of like we’re not sure we should buy green bananas in the office because we may not be here to eat them,” Alfuth said, “but we seriously can’t make really long-range plans for things because we don’t know where we’ll be, so it’s kind of a day-to-day thing right now.”

Alfuth said that the uncertainty is causing people to leave UW-Extension when they receive other offers or when they are close to retirement, which is changing the face of the division.

“Any time that you have something that’s this in limbo, it’s understandable,” Alfuth said. “People have to support their families and stuff, and they need stability, and so they can’t wait around to see if they have a job or what that job is going to be.”

UW-Extension is made up of county staff like Alfuth and Sterry, statewide specialists on campuses and campus support staff. Brenda Boetel is one of the statewide specialists on the UW-River Falls campus, focusing on commodity marketing for livestock and grains. She said that the statewide specialists aren’t expected to be cut at this point, but empty positions will likely remain unfilled.

“So at this point, those aren’t at River Falls,” Boetel said. “If we have somebody who is a statewide specialist in Extension at River Falls who leaves, then that creates problems with whether we’ll be able to refill that position,” Boetel said.

At the county level, UW-Extension offices receive county, federal and state funding. Frank Ginther, the 4-H youth development agent in Pierce County, said that Extension has been economizing for years, but this particular cut is significant because the state is a major part of its funding.

One of the possible solutions for the future is for the county agents to use more technology. Ginther said that they already utilize services like Skype and Google Hangouts.

“I think it’s safe to say that the human side of the work is probably the most fulfilling and where you make the most gains in your work,” Ginther said. “But it doesn’t mean that technology can’t work, and we have used it before.”

Even with the loss of staff, Lori Zierl, the family living agent for Pierce County’s office, said that the way the educators feel about their work will keep them motivated to continue.

“People who get into Extension really have a passion for what they do,” Zierl said. “So we’ll keep working. We’ll keep going to all those meetings you see on our busy calendar, and we’ll keep serving our clients and our partners, because that’s what we do and we do it well.”

Changes to UW-Extension may happen as early as this summer, but most will take place at the end of the year or in the beginning of 2017.