Winter 1985 // Volume 23 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA2

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Extension Specialists: A Self-Analysis

The impact of a specialist's changing role.

John M. Gerber
Associate Professor, Extension Specialist in Vegetable Crops
Department of Horticulture
University of Illinois - Urbana-Champaign

Extension must be ever-changing and growing to remain relevant to the needs of a dynamic society. What changes are Extension specialists making as the organization changes? Are they changing their role, how they spend their time, how they relate to county staff? Are there changes in sources of funds and do these changes have an impact on programming?

National Survey

To document perceived changes in the role of the Extension horticulture specialist, a national survey of state horticulture specialists was conducted in 1983. Since self-perceptions have an important influence on program building as individuals plan for the future, I developed a perception survey with the help of the University of Illinois Survey Research Laboratory. It was mailed to 501 individuals who had either a full or partial appointment as a state Cooperative Extension horticulture specialist. The questions were designed to focus on specific issues, including the role of the specialist with respect to client visits, research, funding of programs, and relationship with county Extension staff. A total of 301 questionnaires were returned and 288 were usable.

The majority responding were faculty members within an academic department with more than 10 years experience in Extension. More than half had a split appointment between Extension and either teaching, research, or administration, while 44% of the respondents had a full Extension appointment.

Role of the Specialist

The role of the Extension specialist in horticulture is perceived to be changing according to the survey results. A majority of the specialists felt they were spending less time on client visits than 10 years ago. Today, more time is devoted to group teaching (county, regional, or state meetings) and training county Extension staff or private consultants. Nearly half (45%) said they were writing more research publications and 34% were writing fewer Extension publications. Many specialists (54%) reported an increase in research activities, while 36% spent more time advising graduate students than they did 10 years ago.

At the same time, 65% felt that the amount of applied or practical research being conducted in their state was inadequate. Of those replying, 68% felt that the research needed by clientele was being conducted by either Extension specialists or being shared by Extension and research faculty.

The Extension mission has been described as the dissemination of research-generated knowledge. There's concern, however, that much of the information being developed today isn't useful for effective Extension programs. Extension specialists in horticulture have responded to the shortage of useful new information by increasing their involvement in applied research. As research scientists in USDA and land-grant institutions move toward more basic or fundamental projects, the gap between development and implementation of new knowledge is likely to widen. Extension specialists trained in the scientific method and schooled in a specific subject matter are the logical group to fulfill this need. However, a broadened interpretation of federal guidelines for Extension activities or more split appointments may then be required.

As state specialists become more active in research programs and reduce their clientele visits, county staff may need to more than ever handle problem solving for individual growers and related agribusinesses. The question then arises about the ability of county staff, in general, to satisfy the needs of specialized industries such as commercial horticultural crop production. While some county staff are perceived as being fully qualified to serve specialized industries, most specialists (73%) indicated that the number of qualified county staff was inadequate to fulfill this need.

Further, while 68% reported that an active training program for county staff exists, 63% indicated that the training wasn't adequate. More well-trained county or multi-county Extension workers are needed in most states if Extension is to continue to serve the needs of horticultural industries. If neither specialists nor county staff are available for individualized problem solving, paid consultants may become a major resource for growers who can afford this service.

The majority of the specialists responding (66%) felt that private consultants will take on more of the responsibilities previously carried out by Extension. If this occurs, it may become the responsibility of the Extension specialists to provide training for both private consultants and county Extension staff.

As specialists move from the role of teachers of growers, to teachers of other teachers, new instructional materials and techniques will be needed. Further, to target training programs, it will be critical to determine which group (county Extension staff, paid consultants, or agricultural industry representatives) is most effective as the disseminator of knowledge.

Extension specialists in horticulture have reported changes in their job-related activities and many (36%) have become less satisified with their jobs, compared with 10 years ago (see Table 1). Of more concern perhaps is the relatively large group of specialists (41 %) that feel that Extension has become less effective in serving the needs of clients in their states. This is a serious concern and the reasons for the perceived loss of impact by Extension should be investigated.

Table 1. Extension specialists' perception of job-related activities.

Assuming you have perceived some changes in the activities of Extension specialists since 1973, how have these changes affected the following:

  Percentage of responses
  Increased Decreased No effect No response

Your clients' overall degree of satisfaction with Extension in your state   38.0% 34.5% 22.0% 5.5%
The degree of which Extension succeeds in fulfilling its mission (as you perceive it)   38.8 40.9 17.1 3.2
Your own overall degree of satisfaction with your job   34.5 36.2 22.3 7.0

Funding Concerns

A major concern of many specialists and perhaps part of the reason for decreased job satisfaction has been the decline in availability of adequate funds to carry out effective Extension programs. Most specialists (77%) indicated that the level of funding received through traditional channels wasn't adequate. They also said they'd explored alternative means of funding their programs.

State and federal funds were the primary source for 71 % of the specialists. The major alternative sources of funds for Extension programs were clientele or grower group and agricultural industry donations. Registration fees and sale materials were of secondary importance. As specialty groups increase their level of support for Extension education programs, individual specialists may be inclined to devote more of their time to issues of concern to the funding groups. The result could be that the direction of the program becomes diffused and influenced by those groups with money to donate. A majority (68%) of the specialists felt that this was a serious problem.

The future direction of Extension programs may depend on sources of funding. Increased federal or state funds would allow specialists more freedom to determine programs according to perceived need. Most specialists indicated that with an increase in funding, new instructional materials, such as audiovisual aids and computer programs, would be developed. Travel for professional improvement, county staff training, and increased research were also identified as high priority areas for improvement. Without an increase in state or federal support, the direction of programs may be influenced by funding groups with specialized needs.


Although this survey of self-perceptions shouldn't be considered precise documentation, several interesting trends were identified. Extension specialists in horticulture appear to be moving away from the traditional activities of farm visits and personal interaction with individual producers. Many specialists are increasing their research activities as applied research is perceived to be a major need not being satisfied by resident research staff.

It's assumed that the teaching and problem-solvng activities formerly- provided by state specialists would become the responsibility of county Extension staff. However, most specialists felt the number of county staff qualified to serve the needs of commercial producers wasn't adequate and predicted that paid consultants would take on more of Extension's teaching responsibilities. If Extension budgets were increased, few specialists would return to individual grower visits or free instructional materials. Most specialists would prefer to develop more effective communication tools and to improve their own level of expertise.