Winter 1992 // Volume 30 // Number 4 // Forum // 4FRM1
Begrudging Ag Resources Won't Solve Funding Problems
Instead of begrudging agricultural Extension's slice, isn't it time to work together to increase the whole pie? Resources are scarce throughout Extension. Coveting those of other program areas serves only to polarize CES at a time when the entire system is vulnerable to criticism and embarrassment.
Over the past several years, a disturbing trend has emerged in the Journal of Extension and elsewhere. Increasingly, writers are apt to blame agriculture for Extension's problems, be they financial or institutional. Writers suggest the simplistic solution to Extension's problems is reducing the resources available for agricultural Extension work. Increasingly, they're polarizing the Cooperative Extension System.
Sauer makes the implausible generalization that no state should devote more than 10% to 20% of its Extension staff resources to the problems of production agriculture. He argues that youth at risk is a higher cause, more worthy of Extension resources.1
Dillman expands Sauer's complaint that agriculture gets too big a slice of the USDA and Extension resource pie. Rural development, he says, is constrained by the "gatekeeper" role of agriculture. He notes that just 17% of rural U.S. counties are dependent on agriculture. It's easy to trivialize such small potatoes (pardon the pun), but don't forget that oxygen is "only" about 20% of the air we breathe.2
My good friend George McDowell, at a CES program leaders' meeting and more recently in Cooperative Farmer, claims CES is "held hostage" by agricultural interests. The fact that "everybody eats," he says, is a weak basis for agricultural Extension. He also hints (rather strongly) that community resource development has need for agriculture's resources.3
In Conone's recent Forum article, she declares that we're "trapped in our agrarian past." A viable Extension, she says, must shift toward more critical needs. Many are more congruous with home economics, including day care, teenage pregnancy, health care, child abuse/neglect.4
I've never been much of a believer in conspiracy theory, but there seems to be a trend developing here. These critics all share a common characteristic. They all covet a bigger slice of the agricultural Extension pie. Their verbiage ("gatekeeper," "hostage," "trapped") is negative and polarizing. Dillman even wants rural development (along with its appropriated funds) out of the USDA. Maybe I'm naive, but shouldn't the U.S. Department of Agriculture be committed to agriculture?
Generalizations critical of agriculture are myopic. In 40 years, the world's population will grow to over 10 billion people; agriculture will become more important, not less, to ensure that "everybody eats." The resources earmarked for agriculture clearly reach far beyond the farm family. Did you know that more than 40% of USDA's 111,000 employees work for the U.S. Forest Service? That USDA transfer payments such as food stamps, WIC, and school lunch programs for nonfarm recipients were budgeted at $31 billion in 1992 (over half the USDA budget), while payments to farmers were $10 billion? That 62 million people received direct USDA benefits in 1990? That only 20% of USDA workforce administers programs that deal with farmers? That just 34% of Extension staff time allotted to base programs in 1992 was directed to agriculture?
Of designated programs included in the Extension FY 1993 budget, only pest management and farm safety are targeted specifically and exclusively to agriculture. They represent 10% of the designated programs requested. The EFNEP request, on the other hand, accounts for 56% of designated program resources.5
The Extension pie is being divided into increasingly smaller slices. Considering our broad mission, resources available to accomplish it are indeed meager. In 1990, Fairfax County, Virginia, a Washington, D.C. suburb, spent 45% of its $2.7 billion budget on education, while the entire 1990 Cooperative Extension System budget from all sources was just $1.2 billion!
Instead of begrudging agricultural Extension's slice, isn't it time to work together to increase the whole pie? Resources are scare throughout Extension. Coveting those of other program areas serves only to polarize CES at a time when the entire system is vulnerable to criticism and embarrassment. Toffler6 notes that in times of rapid change, "strategic planning based on straight line trend extrapolation is inherently dangerous." Let's move beyond the expeditious "zero-sum game" mentality. Let's make a commitment to real strategic planning by co-existing and collaborating to prepare for the future in a positive manner.
1. Richard J. Sauer, "Youth at Risk: Extension's Hard Decisions," Journal of Extension, XXVIII (Spring 1990), 4-6.
2. Don A. Dillman, "Agricultural Gatekeepers: Real Barrier to Rural Development," Journal of Extension, XXIX (Spring 1991), 7- 8.
3. George McDowell, Cooperative Farmer (December 1991).
4. Ruth M. Conone, "People Listening to People...Or Are We Really?" Journal of Extension, XXIX (Fall 1991), 31-33.
5. Farm safety/rural health and pesticide impact assessment, which partially benefit agriculture, together account for another four percent of the request.
6. Alvin Toffler, The Adaptive Corporation (New York: McGraw- Hill, 1985), p. 19.