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Jacob Heitstuman (15 months) cheering on his daddy, Brian, and his papa, Dale, as they fill the sprayer
in Pomeroy.

Photo by Stephanie Heitstuman.

FARMER'S TOOLBOX

UNDEREXTENDED?

Eastern Washington producers concerned about vacancies in WSU Extension

August/September 2021
By Trista Crossley


For more than 100 years, Washington State University (WSU) Extension has played a pivotal role in dryland wheat farming in Eastern Washington, but growers are concerned that the service’s commitment to the area’s predominant cropping system is faltering.

“I think there’s a great deal of concern about the Extension coverage given the productivity of the region. This is the high yielding, high-end wheat producing area, and Whitman County is the highest, most productive wheat producing county in the nation,” said Jim Moyer, Washington Association of Wheat Growers’ (WAWG) Research Committee chairman and a grower from Columbia County. “The concern is WSU needs to figure out what they are going to do to support this area. Following the recession of 2009, there has been a very troubling increase in vacant Extension positions with some questions of relevancy. This pretty quickly translates into a lack of support at different levels.”

Vicki McCracken, associate dean and director of Extension, acknowledged a decline in full time Extension employees. Between 1990 and 2021, there was a 40 percent reduction in the number of Extension academic individuals who conduct research and work with local communities, due mainly to budget cuts. The number of vacant positions, however, is harder for her to quantify.

“I wish I could give you a good number (of current vacancies),” she said. “The reason I can’t, is, because of budget reductions, the positions disappear. I can talk about having a vacancy, but the position has been lost. A lot of these, once the position disappears, the position is no longer on the books, and it isn’t considered vacant by the university because the position no longer exists.”

Currently, in Washington state, there are 39 county Extension offices, an Extension office on the Colville Reservation and four research and Extension centers.

Extension has its roots in agricultural clubs and societies that sprang up in the early 1800s. In 1914, the Smith Lever Act formalized Extension, establishing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s partnership with land-grant universities to apply research and provide education, especially on rural agricultural issues. In Washington state, Extension faculty serves in academic units doing applied research and outreach, but it also includes faculty and staff who are based out in the community, providing direct links between the industry, community and WSU. Extension is also involved in many local 4-H and master gardener programs.

“I know we have some vacant positions, and there’s real interest in filling those and other positions that have been vacated and real interest on my part in terms of being able to fill those positions,” McCracken said. “Those are individuals physically located out where grain production occurs, where grain marketing occurs. They live there. They are in the communities, but they are also part of WSU. Having people out in the communities, where small grains are actually produced, is really critical in terms of the flow of information from the university to the communities but also advising back from the community to the researchers. A lot of times, our faculty members who are out in communities are the ones that help the researchers do the right kind of research.”

Mike Carstensen, chairman of the Washington Grain Commission (WGC), said the WGC supports the Extension service and urged WSU to fill open vacancies as soon as possible. The WGC has established several endowments funding Extension positions and financially supports many Extension research projects. He said he’s heard complaints from growers that Extension is too slow in filling open positions and that some employees don’t have the background or skills to deal with an industry that is becoming more reliant on precision agriculture and technology.

“There is a need for Extension. The vast numbers of growers want it, and they want WSU to fill those positions with trained professionals,” he said. “COVID has presented some unique challenges for everyone, and I hope it’s not being used as an excuse for slow movement. Another problem is the money issue. WSU is looking to cut budgets anywhere they can. I just hope they don’t trim the budget too much to where programs farmers depend on from our land-grant universities are nonexistent.”

McCracken said Extension positions have three primary sources of funding: state appropriated money from WSU, federal dollars through the Smith Lever Act and competitive grants and from the counties where Extension faculty are based.

“By putting in some money, counties can make sure they get someone who the county or multiple counties need. That’s one of the things we’ve been struggling with, is to have people funded across counties and have counties trust that they’ll get their fair share,” she explained. “Unfortunately, we’ve been hit by smaller state and county budgets, flat federal budgets and increasing competitive grant funds that are tied to specific work that might not be small grains related.”

Moyer pointed out that because the university leverages state taxpayer dollars to help bring in federal dollars from capacity programs and competitive grants, when positions aren’t filled, it’s not just the state funds that are lost, but also matching federal and county funds.

Moyer and other wheat growers in Columbia, Garfield and Walla Walla counties have been working with WSU and county commissioners to fill open positions in those areas, as there is currently no Extension support in southeastern Washington for dryland agriculture. In May, WAWG sent a letter to WSU administrators expressing support for the county Extension offices. McCracken said filling a position in that area is a top priority for Extension and WSU.

“It is on the hiring plan. We are waiting to hear from the University,” she said.

Getting the funding to fill positions is only part of the challenge faced by McCracken. As Moyer pointed out, farming today looks nothing like it did 10 years ago, and farmers need Extension personnel who can advise growers in highly technical matters, such as precision agriculture, carbon credits, etc.

“Certainly, there’s been a lot of changes in recent times that are calling for a whole new set of skills,” he said. “These challenges emphasize the importance of having that WSU Extension presence available to the growers. There was a fairly long period of time when things were relatively static. There might have been a tendency to take things for granted on both sides, and when attrition started taking its toll, combined with economic conditions, it was almost the perfect storm.”

McCracken understood farmers’ concern about Extension personnel having relevant skill sets, saying she doesn’t think they’ve done a very good job helping the younger generation see the value in taking an Extension position. She said they are working with their academic departments to get students to see Extension as a career track. They are also working to engage undergraduates more with local communities.

“We are trying to get (more) newly trained individuals, because newly trained individuals are more likely to have the interest in and knowledge of emerging technologies,” she said. “The other thing is, Extension positions don’t pay so well. We get a good faculty member, a good county Extension person, then industry offers them a higher salary.”

One of the biggest benefits that Extension provides is an unbiased source of information and expertise for producers.

“Historically, it’s been to growers’ advantage to have someone there who not only has their own innovative programs in areas not serviced by any in industry, but also in things like the variety testing program. WSU’s variety testing program is the unbiased source of information for how varieties perform in the various regions of Washington,” Moyer said. “We need the same kind of thing for weed control, soil health and with these new, more complex things that are on the horizon. There needs to be someone who can advise the growers in these highly technical areas.”