Rural residents wary about fate of UW-Extension

Rick Barrett
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The proposed dismantling of University of Wisconsin-Extension, in an administrative sense, has some people worried about the fate of programs and services that have been pillars of rural communities in the state for decades. 

UW-Extension agent Zen Miller (left) talks with dairy farmer Jed Court in his milking parlor in Black Creek Wis. Miller assisted Court with building a new milking parlor in 2009 after a fire destroyed the original one. Court milks about 80 head of dairy cattle at his Outagamie County farm.

Under the proposal, which will go before UW System Board of Regents for approval in November, UW-Extension Cooperative — widely known for its agriculture agents and Wisconsin 4-H program — would become part of University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television, in addition to programs such as continuing education and e-learning, would be merged into the UW System Administration.

If approved, the plan would go into effect in July.

First announced Oct. 10, not many details have been disclosed — resulting in angst for some Extension employees.

“The truth is that we didn’t know anything about this until it basically happened,” said a Cooperative Extension employee who asked not to be named out of fear of reprisals.

“I can already tell you there is a lot of concern,” he said. “If we are under UW-Madison, and they have to choose between funding Madison and funding Cooperative Extension, which one do you think they’re going to choose?”

Officials say the proposed changes are being driven by a need to shore up University of Wisconsin two-year colleges that have seen steady declines in enrollment and not problems at UW-Extension.

However, the statewide office that runs both UW Colleges and Extension, now led by Chancellor Cathleen Sandeen, would be eliminated.

“We needed to do something to ensure the future financial stability of UW Colleges. And the regents and President (Ray) Cross decided, since they were doing that, they would also disassemble UW Extension and distribute that out to other entities,” Sandeen said. 

This wouldn't be the first shakeup in the past couple of years. 

“We have gone through a massive reorganization of Cooperative Extension, redesigning it from top to bottom,” Sandeen said.

For decades, Extension specialists have made home-and-farm visits to offer advice on matters ranging from family living and nutrition to crops and livestock care. They also teach classes in the communities they serve. 

Through Extension, "all Wisconsin people can access university resources and engage in lifelong learning wherever they live and work," according to its mission.

State Sen. Janet Bewley (D-Ashland) said she’s worried that Extension, under UW-Madison leadership, would lose its touch with communities that in some cases are hundreds of miles from the state capitol. 

“It’s a huge concern of mine,” said Bewley, who represents one of the most rural legislative districts in the state.

“While I expect that the regents are going to maintain a UW-Extension, it will probably not be the organic entity that’s driven by deep local connections,” she said.

Currently there are 69 agriculture educators in Cooperative Extension spread across the state's 72 counties, including part-time positions. In addition there are 25 vacant positions.

Until about two years ago, Pierce County in northwest Wisconsin had gone nearly a century without a vacancy in its agriculture agent position.

But the county isn’t funding the job now, even if money for much of the salary is available from Cooperative Extension.

“We have other needs in the county … and we don’t know if the state is going to put money in the budget for (an agent) after the first of next year,” said Pierce County Board Chairman Jeff Holst.

As farming has become more reliant on specialists such as agronomists and livestock nutritionists, Holst, a farmer, said the county agriculture agent may become a fixture of the past.

“I can call my agronomist at 10 o’clock at night if I need to. And I can get services from private industry better and faster,” he said.

“It’s not like the old days. I think Extension has to figure out what its mission is now,” he added.

Many people in agriculture are supportive of Extension, including Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, the state's largest farm group. 

Some farmers can’t afford private consultants, and Cooperative Extension provides advice that's not tied to particular companies and brands, said Heidi Zoerb, interim associate dean at UW-Extension.

Franciso Ariaga, with the UW-Extension, give a talk in Spanish on soil health during Farm Technology Days on July 12.

“There are still a lot of people who feel much better talking with somebody local, somebody who is willing to come to their farm, who knows the community and marketplace, and who has a tie to the university,” Zoerb said.

On any given day, an agriculture agent could be helping a farmer with milk production issues or troubled crops. The agents also provide business advice. 

Zen Miller, an Outagamie County agent, says he’s hopeful that the proposed changes would result in a cost-effective system that doesn't harm services used by many farming operations. 

Miller, 65, is retiring in January after 21 years as an agriculture agent. 

“This has been a great job for me. I have a high need in my personality to help people,” he said.

Some counties, such as Rusk County north of Eau Claire, have multiple Cooperative Extension positions vacant because of funding issues.

In contrast, Outagamie County, in the Fox Valley, has all its positions filled.

“We are fully staffed because the services that our agents offer are very important to rural communities. It’s a priority for them,” said Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson.

Nelson said he’s concerned about quality of services under the proposed merger of Cooperative Extension. 

“There can be a danger, a pitfall to consolidation, in that a service that thrived will wither on the vine,” he said.

Like other areas under Extension, Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television have seen many changes over the years. 

“Obviously, it’s early in this process and I can’t speculate as to the details of this administrative shift. What I can say is that for the last 100 years it’s been about the programming. Serving the people of Wisconsin is what matters to the UW and to us,” said Malcolm Brett, director of broadcast and media innovations for UW-Extension.

Earlier, Brett announced his retirement, effective in 2018. 

Darrell McCauley (middle) and Savannah Williams (right) talk to Farm Technology Days guests about water movement through Karst landscapes in the UW-Extension tent on July 12. UW Extension workers have been a mainstay at large agriculture shows across the state.

Currently, UW-Extension has about 1,076 full-time equivalent employees, down from 1,092 in 2016. Cooperative Extension has 539, down from 561 last year.

Officials say the integration of Cooperative Extension with UW-Madison would be consistent with similar practices in Michigan, Illinois and Pennsylvania.

They say it also would provide more opportunities to connect the research from UW-Madison with the practical work that Extension agents do in the field.

The proposed changes aren't aimed at cutting jobs, according to Sandeen, who said Extension has already gone through much restructuring. 

"We did receive a pretty significant budget cut (in 2015) and the budgets for counties are also very thin, so we can't do more with less. We have to be realistic about what we can provide with the resources we have," Sandeen said.

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Even with assurances from UW officials that most things would remain the same under the proposed merger, there are still many unknowns.

"You always want to follow the money," said Noel Radomski, director and associate researcher for the Wisconsin Center of the Advancement of Postsecondary Education at UW-Madison.

"The current proposal could re-invigorate the UW-Madison mission if UW System transfers all of (Cooperative Extension's) revenues to UW-Madison. The current proposal could re-energize UW-Madisonif UW-Extension central leaders and administrators are released (Cooperative Extension faculty and staff who provide educational and support services should not be eliminated), thus providing significant cost savings, reducing administrative duplication and addressing inefficiencies,” Radomski said in a blog. 

“If all of this takes place, it could help to re-integrate UW-Madison’s research, instruction and public service and outreach, which will help advance the quality of life, economy, and workforce needs in all 72 Wisconsin counties,” he wrote. 

Rushing through the process would result in poor decisions, Radomski said in an interview, adding that Extension employees' morale is low because they weren't consulted about the proposed merger. 

"The November 2017 and July 2018 timeline is folly and should be extended," he said. 

"I have talked with a lot of faculty and staff at Extension and the (two-year) colleges and they are not inherently opposed to the restructuring. But they have lots of questions, and they recognize that the details aren't there," Radomski said.