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Walsh County Extension Agent Brad Brummond scouts a potato research plot at the Extension office Friday in Park River. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Extension Service perseveres in North Dakota

PARK RIVER, N.D. — After church services a few Sundays ago, a fellow parishioner stopped Brad Brummond to ask him a question about water beetles.

The same weekend, Brummond was at a restaurant. A diner asked him for the lowdown on the canker worms that were munching on the man’s tree leaves.

Brummond, the Walsh County Extension Service agricultural agent, wasn’t surprised by the nature of the questions, nor was he stumped for answers.

As a 37-year veteran of the North Dakota Extension Service, Brummond has gotten used to questions about farming. He sees it as a good thing and believes that kind of accessibility is one of the strengths of the North Dakota Extension Service.

North Dakota, unlike several other states — including neighboring South Dakota and Minnesota — still has an agricultural Extension agent in each of its 53 counties. As other states make cuts to deal with fiscal shortfalls, North Dakota’s Extension program has persevered.

“Over the past couple of decades there have been discussions of other models from time to time, but the strong support from local communities and local constituents is what keeps us in the county model,” said Greg Lardy, NDSU Extension Service interim director and vice president of agricultural affairs.

South Dakota changed its model for Extension in 2011 after three years of a struggling state economy. As part of the change, the state moved to a regional center for agricultural outreach, said Karla Trautman, SDSU Extension Service interim director. People with ag-related questions can call the centers, which are staffed with experts on various topics.

The change was made in response to state budget cuts of approximately 10%. At about the same time as the state cuts, there also were federal cuts.

“We knew with that significant of a cut, it was in our best interest not to try and patch everything together and ride that out,” Trautman said. ”This wasn’t about a one-year reduction. This was a permanent reduction.”

The South Dakota State University Extension Service budget, funded with state and federal money, annually is about $12 million, Trautman said. Meanwhile, the North Dakota Extension Service has a budget of $52 million annually; about half of that is from the state and half is a combination of federal and county funding, grants and contracts. The Minnesota Extension Service has an annual budget of slightly more than $70 million, funded by several sources including counties, the state and federal government, grants, contracts and gifts, said Beverly Durgan, University of Minnesota Extension Service dean.

South Dakota's response to the tighter budget was consolidation of services.

Some people initially were unhappy about the changes; others were excited because instead of having their questions answered by county agricultural agents who were “generalists,” they were answered by people with deep knowledge in specific areas, Trautman said.

Ray Gosmire, who worked as an SDSU Extension agent for a combined 33 years in Davison and Aurora counties in south-central South Dakota, said he understands the reason for the budget cuts. He said recently he doesn’t want to criticize the SDSU Extension Service for doing what it thought was necessary.

But it’s difficult for Gosmire to see the agency he worked so hard to promote become much less visible to the public. Fewer agents in South Dakota counties makes the agency less visible to the people it serves.

“I did a news column every week and two radio reports every week,” said Gosmire. “They don’t do that anymore.”

That means it may be more difficult to develop a trusting relationship with Extension personnel.

Craig Stehly farms northwest of Mitchell, S.D., where Gosmire spent so much time promoting Extension services and working with farmers. With the statewide change comes a reality: “I don’t rely on them as much as when there were county agents,” said Stehly.

However, Stehly still has access to a regional Extension office, only 10 miles from his farm. He also can take a picture on his cell phone and send it to regional Extension experts if he has a question about an insect or disease problem in his crops. It's handy, because it eliminates the need to have someone come out to his farm.

In Minnesota, Extension services are more of a local decision. Each of the 87 counties has the choice to have an agriculture educator, Durgan said. Fifty-seven of the counties do.

The move to change the Extension Service’s delivery system came in 2004, when the agency began looking at its county, regional and state systems, Durgan said.

The need to change was driven by county budgets, which had varying levels of funding for Extension educators, she said. The Minnesota Extension Service has an annual budget of slightly more than $70 million, funded by several sources, including counties, the state and federal government, grants, contracts and gifts, Durgan said.

Although, not all Minnesota counties have an agricultural educator, there are 15 regional offices across the state and experts at the University of Minnesota to which customers of the Extension Service have access.

“There’s always a way to contact Extension in Minnesota and get that answer you need,” Durgan said.

Farmers and others who live in South Dakota and Minnesota also can find agricultural information on Extension Service websites and at farm meetings, Trautman and Durgan said.

“I think we are doing what we can to make sure we are reaching farmers in the state and providing the resources they need,” Durgan said. “It’s just that they might not be getting it from the county office.”

A critical service

Extension Service directors in North Dakota’s neighbors to the east and south say their systems work, but North Dakota’s director believes it still is best to have an agricultural agent in every county. Lardy considers it "critical."

“Philosophically speaking, when you look at the strength of Extension, a lot has to do with the local system,” Lardy said. “To deliver to the local community, that local agent is a critical part of that."

The NDSU Extension Service, like the University of Minnesota and SDSU services, distributes information online and via social media. But the agency also also believes it's important to have boots on the ground, Lardy said.

Brummond has seen many changes in the way information is delivered during nearly four decades with the NDSU Extension Service. For example, handing out mimeographed copies vs. text messaging. But one of the things that’s remained consistent is the farmers’ need for unbiased answers given by people who live in the communities they serve.

“I think it’s extremely important we have good, knowledgeable people who know them and work with them,” Brummond said. “I’ve been to their weddings. I’ve been to their graduations. I go to church with them. I go to school events with them.”

And because of his accessibility, Brummond fields important ag-related questions at places like churches, school events and restaurants. Topics usually range from insect invasions to weed control to vegetables.

“I spent 40 minutes talking about frozen rhubarb when I went to pick up my mail,” Brummond said.

After 26 years in Walsh County, farmers trust he will give them accurate, unbiased information, Brummond said.

“Because of my experience, I have a reputation of being a pretty solid guy.”