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Cuts impact extension programs

Friday, March 13, 2009

COLUMBUS (AP) — Educators and agriculture advocates in Ohio and other farm belt states say budget proposals would cut funding at many university-based extension programs, even as the grim economy prompts more and more penny-pinching residents to seek out their advice on gardening, canning and do-it-yourself repair projects.

Each state has an extension office at its land grant university along with several local or regional offices. They provide services and research in agriculture and consumer sciences on topics ranging from organic farming and animal breeding to child care, nutrition and work force development.

Farmers, consumers, educators and small businesses all rely on extension offices for help and advice.

Officials are bracing for potential layoffs or restructuring at the cooperative extension service programs from Minnesota to Louisiana, as state and county governments that largely fund the programs say they must cut their contributions amid the recession.

“It’s fairly common with the state budgets suffering as much as they are,” said James Wade, director of extension and outreach for the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

Ohio allotted about $26.3 million in 2008 for the Ohio State University Extension program. Gov. Ted Strickland’s plan would scale back funding to $21 million in fiscal 2010 and just under $20 million in 2011.

The extension office announced this week that it is cutting 22 of its 235 county educator jobs after two funding reductions. It’s also restructuring its staff and eyeing more layoffs under proposed budget cuts. Its office in northwest Ohio’s Allen County will close because the county can’t afford to help with funding.

With a similar reorganization and funding drop in Minnesota in 2003, many unhappy clients found it difficult to adjust to having less one-on-one service from field agents, said Bev Durgan, dean of extension at the University of Minnesota.

Minnesota is facing another round of proposed cuts as is economically hard-hit Michigan, where Gov. Jennifer Granholm wants to combine extension and agriculture research budgets and proposes cutting the total funding by half, from $64 million to $32 million.

At Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, officials expect to lose more than 100 extension instructors and staff under Gov. Bobby Jindal’s proposed budget.

“The public has really relied heavily on their parish offices being the door to solutions to local issues,” especially as they rebuild their lives in areas ransacked by hurricanes, extension Director Paul Coreil said. “I think then they’re going to say, ‘What happened?”’

In Ohio, Jay Begg, 51, a farmer in Allen County, has relied on his local extension for everything from pesticide training to leadership skills as a child growing up in the 4-H program.

“I think it’s going to be harder, especially for the guy like me, the part-time farmer or the beginning farmer who has more questions,” he said. But the prevalence of other information sources may make the extension less important than it once was, he said.