Iowa State University

Inside Iowa State
March 21, 1997

Agriculture extension system is first-of-its-kind

by Diana Pounds
Faculty and staff have begun building a new, first-of-its kind agricultural extension system at Iowa State. Under the new system, the traditional on-campus ag extension specialist position will be phased out and many more faculty and staff in the College of Agriculture will become involved in extension activities. In this Inside Q&A, Stan Johnson, vice provost for extension, discusses new plans for Iowa State Extension.

Why does extension need to change?
Extension needs to change because of the competition in the market for educational and information services -- which is what extension produces. We need to integrate extension much more with the research and teaching programs of the university. We have to have more focus and more flexibility, and we have to be able to adapt to the evolving demands for our services.

Our real resource base has been decreasing. We have to make ourselves into a more productive organization, one that involves more ownership and partnerships with our clients than in the past.

How did the idea for the new extension system come about?
I had a set of conversations with Provost John Kozak, Dean of the College of Agriculture Dave Topel, and other deans and faculty and staff. We developed the idea of programming the extension resources in the College of Agriculture in terms of projects.

After much discussion of the proposal among administrators, faculty, area directors and extension staff, the College of Agriculture cabinet agreed unanimously to accept it. The system will be phased in over the next three fiscal years.

How will the new system work?
On-campus extension faculty and staff, who once reported to the extension director, will report to department chairs in the College of Agriculture. (Their salary funds will be transferred to the college.) Extension and college faculty and staff will agree annually on a series of projects, and extension funds for these projects subsequently will be moved to the college. The dean and the department chairs will negotiate to engage the faculty most suited to the requirements of the projects. Over time, most of the faculty and staff in the College of Agriculture probably will be involved in some of these projects.

For extension, that 's good news because there will be more people to contact in the departments. There will be more people thinking about what the extension projects will be. And there will be less compartmentalization of extension.

How are the projects developed?
It's a friendly set of negotiations in which we use the expertise of the faculty and staff in the college, the extension field staff, industry representatives and other clients to determine how the university can contribute to the growth and development of agriculture or more prudent use of natural resources.

The users of our extension educational and information services will help us position the projects. There are other organizations providing similar services. We have to be able to provide high quality services at relatively low cost. In the old days, we used to say, "Our programs were informed by our clients." Frankly, after we got through that first sentence, we didn't have much more to say. Now we have the mechanism for broad participation in negotiating the projects. We need this participation because we want to position the projects well and to ensure that all these projects will have a constituency. And if the projects have a constituency, it's much easier to resource them.

Once the projects are determined, college officials will negotiate with faculty and staff who will participate in projects. The projects will provide faculty and staff broadened contacts within the state and an opportunity to get resources from outside, to generate contract and grant resources.

An example of this project concept (and one of the reasons that we decided to try the new system in the College of Agriculture) is the Experiment Station project. The Experiment Station runs on the basis of projects. Faculty in the college are familiar with the mechanism. In fact, the new system that we have developed with the college has many similarities to the operation of the Experiment Station. There may be interdepartmental competition within the college for extension projects, as there is for Experiment Station projects.

What will happen to the current on-campus extension faculty?
They will have more flexibility in terms of things that they can choose to do. They may teach classes. They might be part of research projects . They don't have to do the same thing all their lives. Through negotiations with their department chairs, they can find the areas in which they can make the largest contributions. The departments will have more flexibility, and the individual faculty and staff will have more flexibility.

We were very careful in the college to say that we are not mandating that any faculty member has to change what he or she is doing. This will be determined by a process of negotiation, just as it always has been. It's just that the responsibility for doing that negotiation now resides in the college.

There still could be faculty and staff with 100 percent extension appointments, if the college and the individuals decide that's the most efficient way to allocate resources. I doubt that they will. If you look in the college, there have been fewer and fewer people with 100 percent extension appointments. The nature of the appointment doesn't make so much difference anymore. What matters is who is going to be responsible for producing and delivering the educational and information services.

How does this new plan affect the ag extension field staff?
The ag extension field staff will continue to report to the director, extension to agriculture and natural resources. Since field staff will be involved in the projects, there will be less distance between the ag and natural resources field specialists and the campus faculty and staff. We will define the projects in ways that give the field staff an active role in them. Through joint research and extension projects, the field staff will get to know more of the faculty.

Many extension staff spend time answering clients' questions. Who will do this under the new system?
Responding to calls will be part of some projects. If there were a crops project, for example, there might be someone designated to take calls. We currently have beef and pork center projects which provide clearinghouses for questions from the industry.

As we get more of the college faculty and staff involved in projects, there will be more people connected with clients and involved in answering questions. Field staff also will continue to respond to calls. We're not going to design the projects in such a way that we cut off access to the users of the educational and information services.

The traditional image of extension is that of one-on-one contact -- on the phone or in the field. Is that changing?
We'll never get completely out of the one-on-one business. But the mechanisms for delivering education and information are changing very rapidly and we have to take advantage of that technology and work in the context of the other organizations in the market. My guess is that there will be some decline in the traditional one-on-one activities, frankly, because we can't afford them. But we'll never tell anybody "no." We'll just influence people to expect different things from us by the way we market the services of these projects. The important thing is getting people the answers they need quickly and efficiently.

What is ag extension's relationship to agribusiness, which also provides some extension-like services to customers?
We're not competitors with agribusinesses. It's not our job to take tax money and crowd them out of the market. We want to cooperate with them. Often, our information is given to them and they market or retail it. Training for people who are responsible for pesticides is an example. More and more of the educational support for agriculture is coming from agencies, but we do some of the things that agribusinesses won't do. For example, agribusinesses are often interested in selling something; we provide information without this objective.

We must be more aggressive in terms of the areas in which we produce and market our information and educational services. We must also at times hand our responsibilities over to the private sector. We have to gamble and anticipate what demands will be, position ourselves and produce the services that meet the market demand.

Here's an example of how things are changing. A long time ago, extension field agents were closely involved with farmers and individual farm management decisions, and we still have some farm management programs for farmers. But now, we also service the private sector farm management firms, which use our information. There's more private sector involvement than in the past. We're going to do joint work with these private sector firms that put us at a risk in terms of our "unbiasedness," But frankly we have to dance near the fire. That's where the action is.

Are extension activities in other colleges going to change?
The projects mechanism eventually will be used to program all on-campus extension resources. The deans in other colleges with extension programs have indicated that they support this idea. But we're not going to try to do a cookie cutter of the ag process in all the colleges. The colleges have different cultures.

Over the next year, we will negotiate a process for defining projects with the colleges. We're already on the way. We started with agriculture because it has the biggest extension program, it already had a projects orientation from the Experiment Station and it's the college that I came from, so I know the situation there.

There always seem to be rumblings about the future of extension or extension funding. Will the new system alleviate some of the uncertainty?
There is a process under way which will probably reduce the federal resources within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. My hope is that the department will determine that in the new global economy, more of its existing resources should go to research and development -- things that will make U.S. agriculture more competitive. If we're efficient at programming the resources that come here, if we're efficient in working with clients, we should get a larger share.

There are many other federal agencies from which we can get resources. For example, the Department of Commerce and the state of Iowa fund our Iowa Manufacturing Technology Center, which has a budget of about $6 million a year. We're involved in working the federal system for resources from a variety of agencies. If we're going to engage the full capacities of the university to support the state, we have to diversify to get more resources.

Federal resources are about 18 percent of our extension budget. The state is responsible for a much larger share of our resources -- about 60 percent. More and more, the increases from the state are targeted. If we have the projects in place and people know we can manage them, we're going to get more resources.

Is this new system of extension programming unique?
We're the first. Other extension programs in other states are adjusting to the same kinds of external forces in terms of changing demands, increased competition in the market for educational and information services. We've spoken with those in other states about what they're doing. Now, they are calling to ask us what we're doing. We may be developing a model that will be duplicated in lots of other states.

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