Buckeye Farm News
Faced with losing nearly a quarter of its funding in the proposed state budget, Ohio State University Extension is going forward with a new model of delivering services.
The reorganization — based on a strategic plan completed last year — positions Extension to provide resources on a regional basis rather than by county.
“The budget problem just sped the situation up a bit more, because we believe in the model,” said Extension Director Keith Smith, who is also the university’s associate vice president of agricultural administration.
What was initially intended to be a “slow, incremental” change is now on track to be implemented on June 1, he said.
The new structure divides the state into nine multi-county Extension Education and Research Areas. While each county would maintain a local Extension contact, educators would provide services throughout their region.
“This is the positive side of this new reorganization. We’ll still deliver the unbiased, research-based information out to the citizens of Ohio in their county, but using the resources of an area,” Smith said.
One goal is to allow Extension educators to specialize in their field of expertise instead of providing general services to a single county, Smith said. Regional coordinators would be charged with ensuring that counties receive a fair share of programming based on their financial support.
“If the county does not provide funding, then we don’t provide the resources back,” Smith said.
But the governor’s proposed cuts to Extension’s budget means the new model will have to take effect with fewer staff than planned. On March 5, Extension was forced to cut more than 20 county positions. Smith said the current budget proposal could mean 30 to 35 more field staff will be lost.
“The concern we have is about the lack of educators, because of the budget situation. If we had a full complement there would be no problem whatsoever,” he said.
For example, there will not be enough staff to have an Extension educator for 4-H in every county. So, counties are being encouraged to provide a local 4-H program assistant that would be supported by an Extension educator in that region.
“If anything we’ve advocated more resources for 4-H to make sure that the 4-H program is going to be viable and alive in every one of the counties,” Smith said. But due to the funding situation, “we might be a little skinny is some spots.”
Ohio Farm Bureau Federation is making it a priority to restore Extension’s funding. OFBF Executive Vice President Jack Fisher said Extension delivers wide-ranging programs, including business and community development, that could help put the state on the path to economic recovery.
“In a time when we’re trying to create new economic activity and create jobs, the very thing we’ve had in place for a number of years has a track record, has worked, has shown a return on our investment. I think it deserves a little bit more consideration than it’s getting right now,” he said.
Fisher said economic realities leave Extension leaders with little choice but to restructure their operations.
“I suspect if we had our druthers, we’d like the individual county program, but collectively we’re dealing with the resources that we have and are keeping a good program going.”
The latest funding cuts come after several years of waning financial support for Extension, which previously absorbed reductions by leaving positions unfilled. In 2001, the program had 270 educators, a number that has dropped to about 220, including the recent layoffs. Farmers who hope to avoid further cuts still have a chance to sway lawmakers who are debating the governor’s budget proposal, Fisher said.
“Now’s not a time to sit on the side and complain; now’s the time to be involved,” he said.