Budget Realities and the UW-Extension Service in Wisconsin

Wisconsin State Farmer
Bob Panzer

Wisconsin has had County Agents (UW-Extension County based staff) since 1912 when E. L. Luther was hired to work in Oneida County. Mr. Luther traveled Oneida County with a 2 cylinder Indian motorcycle teaching farmers about farm management, crops, and livestock.

By the end of 1912 Eau Claire and Barron Counties had a county agent to serve their farm families with research based information from the University of Wisconsin. By 1915 there were 12 County Agents in Wisconsin. County Agents were paid 50% by the University of Wisconsin and 50% by the county where they were based as part of a partnership agreement. Today UW-Extension is present in all Wisconsin counties.

The 2015-2017 Wisconsin State biennial budget reduced funding to the University of Wisconsin budget by $250 million. The UW-Extension budget portion of the cuts is $3.6 million per year. This cut is 8.3% of the ongoing state funding for UW-Extension and has prompted changes. The UW-Extension is working on a project called nEXT Generation project. Details of the project can be found on the website UW-Extension leadership is continuing to work on modernizing the UW-Extension for the years to come, and I would encourage readers to view the website.

I have received several calls from members of County Boards that represent rural areas in the state, concerned about the changes that have been announced. Many fear that the loss of numbers of UW-Extension agents will negatively impact the residents they represent. I reached out to Julie Keown-Bomar, an Extension Director, and Heidi Zoerb, the Interim Associate Dean and Associate Director at UW-Extension.

Both leaders provided their thoughts on the future of the UW-Extension and the partnership with Wisconsin Counties that has existed since 1912. Ms. Zoerb provided the following statement, “We are strongly committed to maintaining local programming in every Wisconsin county. As our first county agent demonstrated in 1912, local offices provide the shortest distance between the people of Wisconsin and University of Wisconsin programs. Through our reorganization, Cooperative Extension will maintain an office in every county willing to continue our partnership through providing matching funds and space for Cooperative Extension staff. We recognize that there are increasing pressures on public funds at all levels, and we look forward to working with our county partners to deliver programs in Wisconsin communities.”

The takeaway from my discussion with both representatives is UW-Extension still wants to maintain partnerships with Wisconsin Counties and maintain UW-Extension staff at county offices.

Reorganization plans call for the new plan of organization to be in place by year end. Will the county you reside in continue to be a partner with UW-Extension? If you are concerned about the ongoing support of UW-Extension in your county, I would encourage you to get involved and research what your county board is considering. What are the budget realities in your county?

Often citizens take little time to know the issues or lack the understanding of how changes can impact them, impact their children, and impact their businesses. One example is when I was serving on a school board. The district was facing a budget shortfall and needed to exceed the revenue limits. The school board voted to go to referendum to exceed the budget ceiling. Presentations were made about what cuts would be made if the referendum to exceed revenue limits failed.

The voters turned down the referendum and in the fall parents were upset when their children did not get the classes they wanted as they had been cut. Some thought the proposed cuts were only a threat by the board. Without support, budget cuts become reality. Now is the time to understand that budgets for 2018 are being developed by Wisconsin counties and your voice needs to be heard.

I strongly believe in the value of the work of the UW-Extension. I believe rural Wisconsin has benefited greatly from UW-Extension staff based in county offices and staff involved in research on the state level. Wisconsin citizens should be proud of the 105 years of partnerships with the University of Wisconsin and the 72 counties that make up Wisconsin and the UW-Extension Service. Our youth, local governments, farmers, agribusinesses, natural resources, and local economies have benefited from UW-Extension. Today’s budget realities are calling for changes. Now is the time to drive those changes.

Bob Panzer farms in Chippewa County, WI and is a retired lender that offers farm management consulting in the Midwest and Great Plains regions. He may be contacted at 920-539-8728.