By the Numbers

Keep Ag Extension Relevant for 21st Century

Danny Klinefelter , DTN Farm Business Adviser
Ongoing budget cuts, technology and ag consolidation require extension to rethink how it delivers services. (Photo courtesy of Dreamtime)

I'm proud to have been an extension specialist for the past 30 years -- mostly because I believe that extension's primary role is to serve as a change agent.

Unfortunately, even successful individuals and organizations have a natural tendency to fall into the trap of focusing on what has worked well in the past, what they feel comfortable doing, and what is politically correct or politically expedient. The result is that we often stifle our potential.

Exacerbating the problem is whenever there is a state budget shortfall, extension budgets get axed. For example, when the Great Recession hit in 2008, Clemson's Extension took a 30% budget cut, losing 50 county agents and extension specialists.

When the situation improves, extension feels it's a victory if they just get level funding. Slowly but surely, budgets are shrinking and that's affected extension's ability nationwide to assess farm finances, farm economics, ag law and farm estate and succession planning. Big voids exist outside the top farm states.

To remain effective and relevant, however, even change agents must make changes -- in themselves. If universities and extension are to continue to serve as change agents in society today, we ourselves must embrace changes in many levels: a greater emphasis on alternative delivery and funding mechanisms; the development of new sources of funding for extension programming; an increased commitment to the economic principle of equal marginal returns; a shift in extension's management focus to become more strategic and entrepreneurial and less operational; and increased sharing of resources across state lines.

My first concern is that if extension becomes more dependent on state and local funding sources, programming will become more parochial and myopic as the funding sources demand that time and resources be devoted or restricted to local issues and problems.

If extension economists believe that part of their mission includes programs that focus on strategic management, innovation, and policy analysis, we must place greater emphasis on alternative delivery and funding mechanisms. Managing strategically means anticipating, adapting to, driving and capitalizing on change. It isn't just long-term planning and SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis. If we don't do this, extension will increasingly be limited to awareness and social service programs, while the most progressive and change-oriented clientele will continue the trend to look elsewhere to meet their needs.

The opportunities are unlimited if we can break some of their bonds of tradition and be allowed to pursue them:

-- Webinar technology can take live and archived programming as well as in-depth modular courses directly into individual homes and offices, to be reviewed or viewed as the most convenient time for the user, as well as cutting the time on cost of travel.

-- Fee-based programs could be set up more for cost recovery or even revenue generation rather than the token pricing that typically occurs. If what we do truly has value to end users with the ability to pay, we need to recognize the possibilities by looking at in-depth, hands on private seminars, engineering extension programs, and business school management development programs.

-- Grants, contracts, corporate sponsorships, and alliances with trade associations or government agencies are also possibilities.

-- The marketing club concept and needs-based training could also be extended by peer advisory groups. These are already widely used by business entrepreneurs and closely held businesses outside of agriculture.

The second change needed is for universities and extension to further embrace the economic principle of equal marginal returns. We have often ignored this principle because it requires that we be proactive and continuously reallocate resources to their highest and best use. This principle also can conflict with tenure-based faculty, whether tenure is defined in academic or longevity terms, as well as political bodies which are almost always more reactive than proactive.

Conflicting priorities can arise from differing definitions of our market. If we view our primary market as the public sector -- which is a fact of life for many administrators -- we become political economists. If we view our market as the end user, we look at the world more as market economists. Extension needs to be managed and structured to encourage and reward both. As one who is more market driven, I believe it is clear that we need to develop new delivery methods, alternative funding sources, and programs that develop strong private sector advocates and alliances.

This in no way implies that extension should abandon its traditional clientele. However, as the economy, the industry, consumer preferences, and the world continue to change, we need to capitalize on the opportunities in continuing education and training using approaches employed by the more progressive business schools and engineering extension programs, which agricultural extension has often ignored or treated as some form of heresy. The issue is whether extension administrators can or will support bifurcated delivery and funding structure.

The third change that I recommend is in extension's management focus. In many states, budget and staff cutbacks have severely restricted extension's ability to provide traditional programs and services. However, these same pressures also created opportunities for innovation and alternative approaches. I believe that extension needs to become more strategic and entrepreneurial and less like a government entity in its management focus. Many businesses and organizations have failed because they were doing something very well but were no longer relevant or what the market was rewarding.

Because most extension programming falls under the umbrella of a public good, our programs must be accessible to and reach as many people as possible. But if we are really interested in changing behavior and having an economic impact, it is equally important that we recognize the reality of the old 80:20 rule. In the past, we said ag consolidation had left just 20% of the nation's farms producing 80% of the nation's food output. The latest USDA statistics now report just 7.5% of farms produce 80% of output and within 10 years that could be a mere 5%.

Every person is just as important as another, but people's needs often differ. Businesses and politicians both learned long ago that, however politically incorrect it may sound, it is as important to teach those who count as it is to count those they reach.

Translated into extension terms, economic impact should be as important as head counts. My experience has shown that changing the knowledge and behavior of the innovators and the leaders is often a more effective and faster way to have an impact than trying to affect change among those who are followers. There are more people who change only when they feel the heat, than there are those who change because they see the light.

In this same vein, extension could benefit from broadening the way it has traditionally originated and marketed its programs and services. Although the county agents have been and will continue to be the grassroots of the organization, there is an increasing need to market through multiple channels. Using the business analogy, the county agents are the local retail dealer network; but, extension also needs to significantly expand its efforts in direct and wholesale marketing. Direct marketing includes more effective use of the internet, demographically sorted and targeted mailings, more effective use of the trade press, along with corporate, trade organization and government agency partnerships and sponsorships.

Fourth, unless extension can find ways to link more effectively with objective, unbiased, applied research, it will have failed in one of its primary missions.

If I had one wish, it would be that the academic incentive system placed equal weight on journal articles and publishing the results of research in laymen's terms in the trade press. Since much of the research conducted in agricultural economics has little application to commercial agriculture, this might encourage research faculty to seek out more applied topic opportunities and to work closer with their extension cohorts.

Finally, I believe it is critical to extension's future that more programming be conducted on a multi-county, statewide, multi-state, national, and international level. For certain market segments, programming opportunities at the county level are limited. Political and commodity boundaries are often a limiting factor in reaching a sustainable critical mass and in stimulating new ideas. There is a tremendous need to develop ways to share resources across state lines, develop multi-state or regional centers for excellence, and to spend less time and resources reinventing the wheel.

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Editor's Note: Danny Klinefelter is an agricultural finance professor and economist with Texas AgriLIFE Extension and Texas A&M University. He also is the founder of the mid-career Texas A&M management course for executive farmers called TEPAP. To read all of Klinefelter's recent DTN columns go to https://www.dtnpf.com/….

(MZT/ES)