In Internet age, farm extension agents make house calls
YATES CENTER, Kansas
YATES CENTER, Kansas (Reuters) - In a tiny one-story office building just off the town square, Dale Lanham is the answer man for farmers with questions about crops, soil or livestock. Barbara Stockebrand handles cooking and nutrition questions. And they both make house calls.
Lanham and Stockebrand are Kansas extension agents. Some see them as a throwback to a simpler time when farmers and rural stay-at-home moms had little access to the latest information.
But taxpayer-funded extension agents have survived across the country despite a sharp decline in the number of farmers and explosion of women in the workplace.
Extension offices were created by federal law in 1914 as part the nation's 106 land-grant colleges. The land-grant college system, which gave land and then later money to create affordable colleges, marked its 150th anniversary this year.
There are some 2,900 extension offices across the country, often tucked away in courthouses or non-descript office buildings in small towns. Extension offices have received stable federal funding for decades, including $462 million this fiscal year. They are mostly funded by state and local governments.
Federal farm subsidies have become a focus of the so-called fiscal cliff negotiations in Washington. President Barack Obama and Republicans in Congress are looking for places to cut the agriculture budget, possibly including research and extension, congressional officials said.
A legion of supporters say extension agents are a grassroots public service, although some farmers no longer use them because of technology advances and the complexity of agriculture.
Clarence Doerksen, who raises wheat and grain sorghum in southwest Kansas, said he pays an independent crop analyst to take soil samples and give advice on fertilizer, pesticides, water usage and other concerns.
"There's no way an extension agent could do anything like that for everyone in the county," said Doerksen, who farms 1,700 acres near the small town of Sublette.
A neighboring farmer, Gail Wright, said he uses a crop consultant to answer questions specific to his 1,000 acres.
"Agents give you pretty broad information, they don't give you field by field information," said Wright.
Resistance to extension cuts is strong in farm country, even among some politicians who frequently call for reductions in government spending.
In 2009, Missouri Democratic Governor Jay Nixon proposed cutting the University of Missouri extension budget in half, or by $14.6 million, and ended up making no cuts at all after objections from some Democrats and Republicans.
Missouri State Senator Tim Green, a St. Louis-area Democrat, said that with tuition costs rising for students attending land-grant universities, the subsidies should be used for on-campus education and not extension services.
"The priority should be to make higher education affordable. I am sure extension services are helpful and effective with those they touch, but you can't do it all," Green said.
Green said "a very valid argument" can be made that the information provided by extension agents about livestock, crops, fertilizer, plant diseases and other concerns can be obtained from the Internet, consultants and other private sources.
Extension agents disagree, saying they are still relevant.
"Anybody can post anything on the Internet and lots of times it is very biased information," said Lanham, whose desk is piled up with reports, brochures and other material. "The whole facts are not there."
Soil type and depth, for example, can vary from county to county in Kansas, requiring specialized knowledge of local agents when questions come up about planting and fertilizing, said Lanham and other extension agents. Plant diseases also vary by region, they said.
"We are just as important as we used to be; it's just a lot different today," said Scott Gordon, an extension agent in Independence, Kansas. "I work with people who have farms of all sizes, from hobby farms to 10,000 acres. We have someone here who just does horticulture - lawns, gardens, trees and landscapes."
Extension offices are commonly associated with rural areas but also are active in cities with advice on food preparation, child care, finance management and other issues. The extension's 4-H system, a nationwide network of clubs for youth, offers programs in the arts, robotics, photography, computer science and many other fields.
"There is a lot more variety in extension today because the demographics have changed so much," said Steven Graham, an assistant dean at Kansas State University College of Agriculture.
As a result of the 1914 law, extension offices sprouted in virtually every county in the nation. Agents educated farmers on how to maximize crop and livestock production, which became especially important during the two world wars and Great Depression.
Extension agents remain despite a decline in the number of farms to 2.2 million in 2011 from 5.4 million in 1950, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The percentage of women working outside the home has more than doubled since 1950, when it was about 30 percent, according to the U.S. Census.
Extension offices have been consolidated into regional offices in many states, although every county still gets extension services. Iowa, for example, has 99 counties merged into 20 district offices. Missouri has 114 counties in eight districts. In Kansas, 65 of 105 counties still have their own extension offices, with the rest in districts. Kansas agents get county funding required by statute.
State funding in particular has declined because of budget cuts to land-grant colleges. In 2011, a survey by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities found that 84 percent of 81 public colleges had a decrease in state appropriations in the past three years, averaging 15 percent
"It's s a difficult environment to deliver what people picture we always delivered," said Rhonda Gibler, associate vice provost for extension management at the University of Missouri. (Editing by Greg McCune and Steve Orlofsky)
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