The Wisconsin Farm Technology Inc. annual meeting in April is usually the time and place when the next county in the outdoor farm show's hosting lineup is announced, but this year there wasn't one – largely due to the upheaval in UW-Extension funding and the uncertainty it has brought.
Extension historically has played a huge role in getting the show done each year, with County Agents serving as Executive Secretary of the show each year as it moves from county to county. That's the way it has worked for over 60 years as the show was first called Farm Progress Days and then Farm Technology Days.
Counties generally have four years to get their committees set and their fundraising done but whichever county hosts the 2019 will have a shorter timeline.
That's because of the uncertainty caused by state cuts to the UW-Extension budget and concerns about how that will impact county offices and local agents. An 8 percent state budget cut to the program translates to $3.6 million. While it's not certain how everything will shake out, early indications are that agents may serve multiple counties or regions of the state, which would make taking on a huge project like Farm Technology Days impossible.
John Shutske, chair of the FTD Inc. board, said that a couple years ago the farm economy was booming and today there's a lot of talk about changes. 'We run a consistently high quality show and we continue to be committed to rotating the show from county to county.
'That's part of our long-term commitment to education,' he added.
Shutske, currently associate dean for Extension and Outreach in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at UW-Madison has also served as the program director for Agricultural and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension within UW-Extension.
The Cooperative Extension Service is currently in a major transition and re-organization process brought on by those state budget cuts. 'There will be far fewer people in the county offices and on campus,' he said. The system will require staffing and structural changes and those will likely take effect in early to mid-2017.
To try to figure out how Farm Technology Days would deal with these changes, a task force of Extension agents was convened, including several who had served as executive secretary of one of the county shows. The group determined that it would no longer be possible for a county agent to simultaneously serve as executive secretary for the show, beginning with the 2019 show.
Shutske said there will be a 'significant reduction in the educational footprint' from Extension at Farm Technology Days events into the future.
With the void left by the county agent's absence in the management of the show, Shutske said future shows will plan to hire a county coordinator to assist them in getting the event organized.
'After the Wood County show, this coordinator will play part of the role that the county agent had filled,' he said. 'This is a transition and it will take some time to work out.'
Because of the uncertainty, no county was named at the April meeting as host of the 2019 show. 'We have a couple of counties interested in 2019 but no formal announcement will be made today,' Shutske added. 'Within a month or two following the Walworth show we will make an announcement.
'I'm very confident that the counties that have come forward are quite eager to host,' he added.
Heidi Johnson, Dane County Extension's Crops and Soils Agent, is the most recent agent to have served as executive secretary of a Farm Technology Days show. She was a new hire in the county's Extension office when organizing for the show began. She was recently part of the task force looking at the role Extension has played in the show in the past.
'In Farm Technology Days, we have played an educational role and helped develop farm tours and done a lot of organizing. The traditional county ag agent won't be there anymore so we're going to have to shift a little bit,' she said.
Re-directing the county agent's role will mean pulling that person back from the executive secretary position. 'The 2019 host county hadn't been chosen yet so that seemed to be a normal spot to begin with this pilot project,' she added. 'It will be a good first year to start with that.'
The Dean of Extension agreed with that conclusion, Johnson said. 'We're going to have less staff and the staff we have won't have the time to put into Farm Technology Days in the future.'
Six county agents who had been involved in the show were involved in the task force.