Some Thoughts on Extension

For those of you who are out of the academic loop, Extension is that part of academia tasked with delivering research based information to those who can use it. You’ll hear other definitions, but I think that this basic one is the most useful for the following discussion. Extension, as a general rule, is tightly tied to agricultural sciences though it may include everything from child care to math or even computer science.

For fifteen years I was a part of Extension at the University level. During that time (1998-2013) my formal Extension title was Nursery Management Specialist and my job was to deliver information to the nursery industry. I was OK at this job, but discovered that my real passion was delivering horticultural information to the public. In 2008 my job was formally changed. I retained the title Nursery Management Specialist, but my duties expanded to include delivering information to the public. Besides my extension title, I also had an academic rank which was, from 1998-2004, Assistant Professor, and which became Associate Professor after I achieved tenure in 2004. For personnel in the applied sciences it is typical to have a percentage associated with their Extension appointment which indicates (roughly) how much of their effort should be put into extension. My Extension appointment was 60% throughout my University career.

I’m giving the above information so that anyone reading this will have a sense of what my experience with Extension is and the perspective from which I speak. I welcome disagreement, I know that my views aren’t the only ones out there. That said, here are the points that I want to make:

1. I believe that Extension is important.
2. I believe that Extension is dying.
3. I believe that Extension cannot be saved unless personnel in administrative roles make some fundamental changes to the way things are currently done.

Let’s start with #1. Extension is important because it provides a link between us and the people who do research that impacts us. Simple as that. Though I have known of exceptions, Extension personnel are usually non-biased individuals who deliver research based information to whoever they can. If you aren’t getting your information from someone in Extension then you’re probably getting it from someone who stands to profit from whatever information they provide. This alone makes Extension important.

#2. Extension is suffering a slow and agonizing death. Certainly there are some people out there who choose to ignore what’s going on, or to see it through rose colored glasses, but that doesn’t change what’s happening. I’ve had numerous people show me particular things that Extension has done which are wonderful, but these things are exceptions and not rules. There are a number of reasons why Extension is failing, many of them are economic, but I think the problem sits much deeper than that and that even a major influx of money would fail to turn things around unless Extension administration changes their tune.

There are actually two types of Extension work. The first is commercial, and the second is consumer. Commercial Extension has a strong presence. Extension personnel who work with farmers who grow crops like soy, corn, cattle, etc. have a long history of working with the industry and that relationship is strong and promises to stay strong, though industry reps from pesticide and fertilizer companies are making great headway in reducing the dependence that farmers have on Extension personnel. In horticultural crops (nursery, greenhouse, etc.) I see essentially the same thing. Extension personnel are respected, but day to day information needs, such as how to control a particular pest, come from pesticide and fertilizer companies who put a lot of time and effort into building relationships with their customers. Once upon a time much of the information that pesticide and fertilizer companies doled out did come indirectly from Extension, but nowadays most of these companies have their own experts (Who may have been trained by Extension people). Though I see an eroding dependence on Extension in the world of commercial extension, the place where I have a much greater concern is consumer Extension. Extension personnel who work in consumer Extension deal with the public. Over the years consumer Extension has come to mean Master Gardeners and 4H. Both of these are fine institutions, but if you think that Extension is providing research based information to everyone who needs it by educating these two groups then you’re sadly mistaken. They are competing poorly with companies like Scott’s or businesses like Home Depot. And when the consumer thinks of a horticulture guru they’re more likely to think of Paul Tukey or P. Allen Smith than their extension agent or specialist. The long and short of it is that Extension has better information than any other source, but they’re not very good at disseminating it.

I see two fundamental problems with extension. The first is that extension has failed to keep up with current communication trends. Right now you are reading a blog with some information on it. There’s a garden professors facebook page too. But when the average individual is looking for information on how to care for plants where do they go? That’s right, a search engine – probably google. And when you type in a query about something like “when to seed your lawn”, or “how to fertilize”, what pops up? Mostly information from Lowes or Scott’s or Home Depot, or youtube, or Popular Mechanics or This Old House. Extension articles may or may not be present in searches. When they are I select them, but how many consumers are this discriminating? Sure, it’s possible that Extension originally provided the information that other companies are now spreading around, but you’d never know it by reading the articles. In fact, some of the recommendations are so terrible that I can’t imagine them coming from Extension. Over the last few years something called eXtension has popped up that supposedly provides extension with an online presence. I know that some people are using it. Indeed, this blog is currently housed in eXtension. Seen eXtension pop up in your google searches much? The problem of largely missing trends in information dissemination dovetails nicely with the next problem, that of reward for accomplishment.

The second fundamental problem that I see with Extension is that the experts who we rely on to gather and distribute research based information aren’t given credit for what they do. By experts I mean the University Faculty who are supposed to gather content and distribute it. This problem has many facets, perhaps the most important of which is that University faculty are judged primarily on two things: the number of papers they write and the grants they bring in. I can’t say that the other stuff, like teaching and presentations, are ignored, but they certainly don’t hold the same weight as papers and money. When new faculty are brought in they quickly learn that they need to write papers and bring in money to achieve tenure. So here’s the issue, to get tenure (and keep my job) I need to write papers and get money, but to accomplish my job I need to communicate with people – so should I spend my time and creative energy trying to develop new ways to communicate with people and avenues for disseminating information, or on producing papers and getting money when I know I can just do a few Master Gardener talks giving me enough credit for doing Extension work that nobody will complain. The answer is obvious, and demonstrates another problem with the system, new faculty hires who have Extension appointments are brought on for their ability to write papers and get grants rather than their ability to communicate. For Extension Faculty the number of people reached with useful information and the novel techniques used to disseminate this information are largely ignored. I suppose that if you published a paper about disseminating information you’d get credit, but come on, if I’m stopping to publish a paper about it – it takes a heck of a long time to write a paper – then I’m going to lose any momentum I have over my competition who doesn’t have to publish a paper – like a pesticide or fertilizer company. For most of the world the proof is in the pudding. In academia the proof is in the paper. This is a problem when you’re competing with for-profit companies.

#3. In my opinion Extension can only be saved if academic administrators value Extension work at a level that is at least close to how they value research. Extension people who are competing with for-profit companies to deliver information are hamstrung from the get go not only because they don’t have the financial resources that for-profit companies do, but also because they don’t receive tangible appreciation for their work (such as raises, tenure, and promotion). An “attaboy!” just doesn’t cut it. As anyone in the business world knows, to accomplish a goal you hire good, qualified people and reward them for their successes. If Extension is to succeed that’s really all that needs to be done.

So, you may disagree with me on some of my points above. Good! Let me know about it. I’d be very pleased to have my mind changed.

41 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Extension”

  1. Jeff, I think your insights are pretty much sahred here in Virginia by many. Many see a shrinking finance pie from the political establishment as a big contributer to the slow demise. I do think that producers in VA do want Extension to continue to provide an independent and unbiazed views. I’m not sure they get the connection between numbers of citizens served and its impact on vote seekers. The biggger the pie of constituents who recieve positive service from Extension the better for the Service. Producers need to be willing to share Extension with the consumer, just for the numbers of constituents succesfully served “support”.

  2. This is an important post and a timely and critical subject for horticulturalists and those concerned about the environment. Horticulture was voted one of the ‘least salaried’ college degrees (second only to journalism) and yet had never been more needed in our culture. With the loss of high school ‘shop’ class and the general burgeoning pastiness in our society, we can only hope and support any efforts that will help get the community college extension programs funded and back on track. . .

  3. As a Master Gardener it seems to me information is in a transition. Perhaps extension needs some of their publications to be friendlier to non scientists more set up for the consumer, not the commercial grower. Has there been an analysis of who is actually using the information extension creates? Who is your main target?
    I’ve noticed working our Hot Line we end up dealing with people who don’t have and don’t want a computer and Internet access to the most up to date person who ‘has an app for that.’

    1. Consumer based articles and publications are and should be written for the lay person, but there is often less financial and administrative support for this sector since it is not viewed as an ‘industry’ but more of a hobby. They get industry support and say that commercial people must make a living, but home horticulture is a hobby activity and can get by on less. It’s all about how much does that sector contribute to the state’s agricultural production income. I have been there.

  4. Thx for the great article, Jeff! I too think Extension is important – and worth saving! I will be sharing your article!

    I may not be in a position to assist those needing to publish or perish (your point #3), although I have communicated with local academic administrators in an attempt to draw attention to Extension services (both commercial and consumer). As an Extension Master Gardener (who tends toward all things geeky), I also try to assist in encouraging more social media participation, although so far I’ve not had much to show for my efforts. We still have a significant number of members who do not feel an online presence could be helpful.

    To lose Extension services to our communities would be horrific, leading many to get their information not only from paid sources found on the internet, but also from those “wives’ tales” we all see and dread.

    I would help in any way I could, if I knew what else I could do. Suggestions?

    1. Nancy, I know Virginia Tech had a recent renaissance in their Extension hiring, primarily because enough people (MGs and others) got fed up and went to their legislators. Honestly, I think that is the only thing that will change the direction of Extension funding in most states.

  5. I agree with the assumption that additional funding will only extend the agony unless fundamental changes are made to “compete” against the heavy hitters in soicial media, i.e. Home Depot, Scotts. I’ve used our local Extention service over the years and have 25 years in the hort industry but I just learned more in your article about the Extension service than I ever knew. If you are not in the forefront of the professionals’ minds then how can you expect to be in the forefront of the consumers’ minds? How do we engage a larger conversation around this as I would like to see consumers depending on more reputable sources in their “google” searches.

  6. You present some very good points yet I wonder why another very important outreach of Extension which was mandated by the Smith Lever Act, Family and Consumer Sciences is not addressed at any point in your blog. Through my work as an Extension Agent I know for a fact that we have actually saved children’s lives through our child safety seat programs and distribution. Not to mention our food safety and food preservation education, financial outreach, radon programs and distribution of radon test kits and so many more programs. Family and Consumer Sciences Extension Agents and Specialists bring in millions of dollars in research grants to improve the lives of our citizens. And just as Agriculture and 4-H need to improve their visibility and impact we face the same challenges. Thank you for caring about Extension and it’s future. I worked as an agent for 29 years before my recent retirement. And I too still feel strongly about the importance of Extension.

  7. Administrators could value Extension more than research, could put it as #1 in their priority list, and it would still be obscure and irrelevant. Extension has a great mission, but it is clueless when it comes to execution. There is no coherent strategy. I hold little hope for it to be turned around. It is up against too many heavy hitters with very deep pockets.

  8. Thank you for your article. I left Extension after 7 years of trying very hard to effect positive change from within. In the end, I left so that my talents would not be wasted in an organization scared of different viewpoints, innovation and change. Our administrators had no room for discussion of where the greatest need was located and so much of our efforts were either being duplicated by the private sector or existed largely to support its major constituency groups. I agree that Extension needs support in Administration to effect positive change. However, at least in the Extension I left behind, I don’t see this as being effective. Administrators were always hired from within, making for a narrowly defined, support the status quo organization. Given the speed with which social networks and organizations are stepping up to provide information to a thirsty public, I think Extension is already too far behind to compete. Also, part of the issue rests with university degree programs too far behind the curve in meeting the needs of a changing world and those who have long since graduated with no easy way to retool their own education. If Administration supported things other than paper and money, perhaps some change is possible.

  9. I must whole heartedly agree with Debbie Wilburn’s comments posted on Dec. 6th. She made some excellent points. I worked for UGA Extension from 1971 to 1997 when I retired early. I must say that I worked with some of the finest educators and public servants who tirelessly upheld the family and consumer sciences program efforts. To me the most important efforts we made were in our face to face outreach with families….we were the reaching the real people who benefited the most from our programs, our time, and our community involvement. With all this technology and such I feel it is still better to have Extension “troops” on the ground in as many communities as possible. I was and still am proud to continue educating my community . Somewhere along the way our administrators have allowed other budget needs of our communities to get in the way of supporting and maintaining one of the best “government” programs ever. Thanks to Debbie Wilburn for commenting.

  10. I have to agree on where people are getting their horticulture information these days and its not usually the extension. I was quite involved at the local and state level with the master gardener organization in Wisconsin. There are local groups doing as best as possible to educate the public but the vast majority are not aware aware of the services the extension offices offer. Where I work part time many customers have become aware of my hort knowledge and even FB friends I always point them to extension for information. what I think hinders people looking for information on the internet is most people have no idea what extension is-a simple name update which is easier said than done would help quite a bit.

  11. Oh you are brave, Jeff!!

    I’m not an extension pro but I totally see what you describe — a slow death after being chopped away bit by bit like a brittle diabetic losing a toe, then a foot, then…. So short-sighted.

    Some of value loss may be related to the Internet — everyone can Google — but everyone cannot Google well, meaning many Googlers find bad information and call it a day. It’s easy to fix that if people are educated but we have to take the time to do educate. My garden related web searches are generally accompanied by edu (soil compaction edu, for example) so the search pulls up extension sites — easy peasy — and I don’t have to worry about somebody selling me something or telling me a pack of lies.

    Extension programs provide many boots on the ground for free — MGVs for example. We stand ready to give out the good information you pros prepare, but we are way underutilized in many places. As we die (MGVs), so dies Extension — we are the toe or the foot — because you can’t do it all and there are other countervailing forces on the other side, as you describe, and money woes, etc.

    Well trained and well mentored, MGVs can deliver. And an attaboy does cut it with volunteers as long as we have meaningful and valuable work to do to earn it. “Value added” at it’s best when it works well.

    I am curious to hear more about what happened at VA Tech and the MG’s role in that.

  12. Very interesting paper and one that just begins the discussion. From my perspective as someone who desperately wants to improve the situation, the lack of marketing your product is at the root of the problem. If people Google for everything and the corporate sites come up first then why aren’t the Extension folks expanding their SEO operations to bring them a higher rating? People can’t buy a product or engage a service if they don’t know it exists.

    For the most part Extension web sites are not user friendly, are locked in Web 1.0 meaning they are one sided while the rest of the world is 2.0 meaning totally interactive.

    As for the pesticide companies, they are the same ones who make pharmaceuticals and use the same sales techniques. Doctor’s today get much of their new information from drug sales people–“Here use this when your patient presents with these symptoms” That’s the same way pesticides are marketed.

    So what’s the solution–Brand the product. Extension should be the leading edge of unbiased information readily available to the public and then get it out there. Otherwise you go the way of other things we use to have. It’s not hard to do and every academic institution has the resources to do it.

    Doing the same thing year after year is not a solution.

  13. I have been saying this for years about Extension, but maybe I have a a slightly different perspective on why Extension is failing . I worked in consumer horticulture for Extension for 18 years. When I started working in Extension the Master Gardener program was strong in at least half the counties in our state( Michigan). MG volunteers worked on hundreds of projects across the state and were a great representative for Extension. Then things started slipping- budget woes we were told. We had to increase the cost of classes- it was required- so that the Extension offices holding classes were making a profit. The money did not go to the county, however, it went to a common fund. It became all about profit, not helping people and getting information out there. Many counties saw a rapid decrease in class size, people couldn’t afford the classes and they were held when it was convenient for educators, not when the public could attend them. Now in Michigan only a few counties hold MG classes and they are quite expensive. MSU no longer supports the MG volunteers after they finish the class, they were told to form their own non-profit groups if they wanted to continue the volunteer experience. Very few volunteer projects now exist. But MSU was “kind” enough to offer a record keeping program a volunteer could pay to keep their records on. MSU claims they need to charge a lot and hold classes only in counties that can find a minimum of 30 students a class so the Extension educators can be paid for their time. The Extension educators are already getting a salary and it doesn’t change whether they teach 2 classes or 10 each month, or whether the class has 15 students or 60 students.

    All kinds of Extension programs have changed, not just horticulture . Educator positions were dropped so that those left often cover 4-5 counties in their field. Educators are required to write and publish papers. They spend vast amounts of time compiling records and statistics, many so that they can prove they are reaching minorities. Minority populations are where the grant money gets spent and Extension is competing with other non-profits to rake those grants in. I saw people do ridiculous things to prove minorities were included in their programs. Programs that are favored by the people who hold the purse strings are those which look good ( the mortgage foreclosure education programs that were available from many other non-profits) or that could make Extension money ( like MG classes that didn’t include having to mentor and supervise volunteers). Even 4-H- a banner program that does so much good- is getting slighted because it just doesn’t make money.

    It doesn’t matter what kind of information the citizens in a county are looking for, they’ll get educators for what Extension can get grants for or what they think State legislators will look favorably on. Extension used to be the go to place for information on horticulture and agriculture, now you’ll be lucky if you can find someone to help you at a local Extension office. I seldom recommend anyone use Extension for problem solving anymore. And yes, I have left Extension.

    On line information and all those papers, websites and articles are fine, and much cheaper than sending educators to county offices, but sometimes you want to talk to a real person, bring in a sample or just discuss a problem with someone. Not everyone is comfortable with using on-line resources, but those people better head to a local store for information, not Extension. You can’t even get written information at most Extension offices anymore.

    It’s money and the idea that on-line information can take the place of face to face interactions and learning that are Extensions enemies. You have to have monetary support from the local, state and federal government to make Extension work, so that hunting for revenue doesn’t occupy time that should be spent dispensing that research based information. You also have to have the mindset in Extension administrators that Extension is there to serve and teach the public, not to make a profit. And Extension should leave social service programs to other non-profits and concentrate on educating.

    I didn’t make much money at Extension. I liked working there though because I felt I was helping people and I liked teaching others what I had learned. When all you do is worry about how to bring money in though, then its no longer worth working there.

    1. Alas, I have seen the same problems exactly. Extension being forced to serve those who can afford the programs. The problem is that so many county programs are living on a frayed shoestring. The volunteers break their backs freely to keep what they believe in, but often do not feel that what we do is actually valued as it should be by the academics who seem to look down on this part of their world. My experience has been that extension personnel “on the ground” are grossly undervalued by the powers that be. Since when is it less important to improve the life and pleasure of your community than to fatten the coffers. The more extension tries to do, the more they have to with not enough time, energy and money to do the job all strive for-to extend information and help to better life for all in our community.

  14. I largely agree with your insights on Extension. Here in Michigan, Extension is a mess. The website is way too difficult to navigate and not intuitive. I’ve complained about this for years. Funds were slashed and as a result a greater burden has been placed on Master Gardeners to make up the difference in education, etc. Consumer Horticulture takes a back seat to commercial farming, much to commercial farming’s detriment. Late Blight information dissemination is a good example. Gardens large and small were filled with tomatoes with Late Blight. The spores sailed away to other gardens and farms because most people hadn’t a clue what Late Blight was or gardened organically and didn’t know how to combat it. Michigan Extension focuses on chemicals and pesticides because that’s what the commercial farmers use. Organic farmers and home gardeners are pretty much left out in the cold. Calls to extension agents to come out and investigate anything smaller than a full fledged farm are met with “send me some pictures. ” Marmorated Stink what? I’ve had Extension educators admit they have never seen a Squash Vine borer or its egg. This is because these folks spend their time at a desk or in farm fields gassed with pesticides. The list goes on and on. There are dedicated folks at extension, but 2 or 3 people can only do so much. Too bad, because with climate change we are headed for food growing disasters. We need Extension more than ever.

    1. I agree with April Campbell. Home gardeners collectively own a lot of growing land. They can inadvertently do damage to crop farms through lack of education as with the late tomato blight. Master Gardeners like myself need horticulture outreach educators to teach us and back us up. We are facing a gypsy moth explosion this spring, and not much has been done to prepare local people to cope. We received a bulletin from our university department of plant pathology that sudden oak death, Phytophthora ramorum, has reached our state. We should be teaching people about the disease, but we aren’t because we don’t have anyone coordinating the effort. I can only Ms. Campbell’s ending comment. “We need Extension more than ever.”

  15. I certainly agree that Extension has a branding problem. An example: This week as a condo owner I prepared a paper on turf management for my condo association because I was concerned about some of the practices I had noted. When I presented it I learned management was not aware that a very well designed demonstration garden and office staffed with horticulture agents and master gardeners is 15 minutes away. Also learned that Management is in negotiations with a major brand for fertilization and pesticides and that current landscaper is not aware or is ignoring water restrictions when setting timers on sprinkler systems.

    This goes directly to advertising a service and the public using the ads to make choices. Extension has little advertising – an article in a local newspaper, advertising a plant sale, or class but not specific to the vast amount of resources available on the web or in the office.

    I should note that I am a 20 year Master Gardener in my primary home state so when I started looking for information my first stop was extension in the state where my condo is located because I value their independent research.

    I believe that in some jurisdictions that part of Extension funding is based on number of contacts. If Extension is no longer a recognizable brand to people other than farmers, nursery industry, etc. then Extension will not getting the contact numbers it needs to justify its existence.

    Also as proof of the high level of training Extension volunteers (Master Gardeners, Master Naturalists) receive they are frequently hired by nurseries and other landscape focused companies . The consumer generally does not realize they are being assisted by a professional when shopping. A loss of advertising Extension because MG’s cannot use their designation unless volunteering.

  16. As a Landscape Architect I believe their may be a valuable collaboration between the extension community and our profession. I certainly experience the google effect when I search for information and fine that for profit companies are the first that show up. I want science based non bias information. Our fo has set up a research arm to test the success of different horticultural practices, as well as social interaction in public spaces. Our problem is that applying for grants as a for profit company gets tricky. We have the means through our built work to help deliver the message. Perhaps there is benefit in some new collaboration to be formed

  17. On the face of it, this sounds like a marketing problem, and you’re up against some big guns, the kind who can afford to buy Superbowl ads. So, as someone from totally outside of the discipline, here’s some thoughts:
    1. Use Twitter. It’s not just the boring details of the boring lives of boring people. For example, Jason Moore, @moorejh, head of the bioinformatics program at Dartmouth, posts professionally interesting links several times a day.
    2. Use Facebook. Why not a FB page for every extension service? Feed links via Twitter. Individuals in niche gardening topics do this:
    3. Use Wikipedia. You’re not allowed to publish your own work, unless it’s published elsewhere. But you can footnote the publications, and footnote the extension service resources web page.
    4. Build your own extension service Wikipedia. How about an Agripedia? Gardenpedia?

    Maybe folks are already doing this. As I said, I’m just a passer-by. I garden, and I stumbled on this.

    1. Growing up, the local OSU-Wooster ATI extension agent for Lorain County (OH) used to have a weekly newspaper column and I think you’ve hit on updated methods to disseminate information to a wider audience.

  18. Excellent article!
    Extension is not only lagging in adapting to new information technologies but it also in gardening trends and attitudes. Extension information on native plants, backyard habitat, wildlife gardening, habitat restoration and other topics along those lines is in short supply. There’s too much of a good plant-bad plant and good bug-bad bug attitude. For example, a recent browse through my state’s native and range plant Ext. publications showed the majority of the plants are rated on browse and grazing attributes. A “If your cow can’t eat it, get rid of it” attitude rules the day. Yet gardening with native plants and developing backyard habitats are top trends in gardening. It’s no surprise that people look elsewhere for information.
    Extension used to lead the way in horticulture and agriculture information, sadly that is no longer the case.

  19. I like this post a lot! I plan to share it with administration and staff here at Penn State. I come to Extension administration from my role as a professor of agricultural economics. I didn’t grow up on a farm and never interacted with Extension until I took on a 75% Extension appointment as an assistant professor in 2000. My perspective, then, is based on this background.

    I concur that Extension is slowly dying under the current approach. In fact, I say it regularly in our meetings here, both with other administrators as well as staff and faculty. This is not news. While the overall economy (including government revenues) has prospered at times during my time in Extension, we didn’t see significant increases from appropriated sources except at the county level. In real terms, we fell well behind in our buying power from those sources. Status quo won’t work; neither will simply “telling our story.” We have to continue to be relevant!!

    I also concur that Extension’s important. The impacts that our staff members have is remarkable!

    I do, however, disagree with your third point in that I don’t believe that’s “all that needs to be done.” If we are going to compete with others for our place in the market, then we must have a strategy to do so. That includes things like developing a marketing plan, working as a cohesive unit as opposed to a collection of people scattered around a large state, and meeting people where they are using a mix of our tried-and-true educational methods along with contemporary methods designed to provide that same information/education in interactive, on-demand ways. I’m VERY excited about the approach we’re taking here at Penn State to become more relevant in this way!

    I appreciate that you’ve put this on the table and look forward to following the discussion around this!

    1. Hi Jeffrey,

      Thanks for your comment! Let me amend my point number three just a little by saying that, if we hire good people and give them credit for the work they do, then all of the other things you list, such as viable marketing plans, working as a cohesive unit, etc. will follow. There are many problems with extension right now, but I honestly feel that the biggest one is that Extension personnel at the highest levels — the professors with the Ph.D.s — have little reason to spend much time on things truly associated with disseminating information and plenty of incentive to ignore extension to do other things.

  20. Thanks for your insights! I work in the commercial sector and view our extension staff as extremely valuable collaborators. We benefit each other in multiple ways: extension specialists keep an eye on the big picture of pest and disease situations that a commercial operation cannot commit resources to tracking, and we provide perspective on what we are doing in the applied science to deal with pest and disease. Extension is also of major importance for us in operating the Plant Disease Clinic for testing samples and making management recommendations. For several seasons now I have arranged Diagnostic Walkabout tours with two extension agents to keep my arborist group aware of new pests and sharpened on their diagnostic skills. Extension is important, I hope I am not seen by them as competition, but collaborators. I would be in bad straits without them!

  21. Use marketing to fight marketing!
    Frankly, as a Canadian I am always amazed and really quite envious, of the resources currently available to your residents. It has been decades since our federal and provincial research stations accepted any homeowner samples for analysis. Many universities and levels of government still have a lot of credible information on the web (sometimes dated). In Canada, University extension programs that accept plant or soil samples and provide analysis is virtually unheard of. Home owners don’t have access to government laboratories and expertise and as mentioned, Google access means marketing wins by shear numbers alone.
    I hope you are not heading where we have already gone.
    As mentioned in the article, marketing information has replacing educational information in the “Public Knowledge Base”. The public have bought into the belief that marketing messages are science and eagerly share this over fences and in gardening blogs with the David Jones’ and John Q Publics. Snake oil by proxy.
    So how do you fight this trend? I suppose working with administrations to change how extension work is valued is necessary, but I don’t think that this alone will slow the slide (it hasn’t here). I think that “fighting fire with fire” is the way to go. Use “marketing to fight marketing”! I understand that this may sound distasteful to many. But lets face it, how do you sell dry stuffy science to homeowners when they want quick fixes that promise everything.
    Make science sexy and relevant to their lives!

  22. Jeff:
    I agree with many of your observations and experiences. Extension needs to do something radical. We need to really think about the organization differently and implement a different model. Trademark and market an alternate name (what does “Extension” mean anyway?), reward the work for its value to the clientele, look toward popular culture and ways to integrate into it (universities already do this — college football anyone?). We need to not fear the future and be able to try new things without fear of retribution. In the university systems everything is dictated by the old guard. This may be fine for research and traditional teaching, but it no longer works for Extension. Young folks need to be integrated into the running of Extension.

  23. Thank you for this thought provoking post. Over a long career I have served as a county agent, state home horticulture specialist, area agent, county coordinator with an 8 year mid career break as a self employed business owner (30 years total). Needless to say I have seen a lot of changes.

    Upon returning to Extension 8 years ago the system had changed from a county agent supported by specialist to a regional agent system with practically no specialist support. I think Jeff is correct that from a departmental faculty perspective Extension has been slowly dying for a long time. However, I am optimistic in our state because I believe the Regional Agents serve in the roll faculty Specialist used to without the pressure of tenure and publish or perish. We get a much higher level of service than we ever got from the state specialist.

    From a County level I do not feel the same degree of futility I had while serving as a specialist because I see daily the tremendous impact we make in people’s lives. We get to experience the joy of actually helping people every day and over time we see the difference a dedicated employee can make in their community.

  24. I currently work in Extension. I have experienced budget cuts in this organization year after year. I have one of the largest MG programs in my state and had over 160 applicants for this years MG class. I supervise a plant clinic open every week and my MG’s and myself service over 6,000 individuals a year with plant questions and problems. Within the next two years my position will be cut from the state budget. The administrative support staff is being cut as well. How is extension suppose to provide the services to the public when there is no one to do it? I agree with Jeff, extension is experiencing a slow death and it is sad. The residents are seeking the information but we just do not have the manpower to supply the need. In my opinion extension is more important than ever! A place where you can get research based information for FREE!

  25. I have been a county extension agent for over 30 years and I agree with most everything that was mentioned in this blog. From a specialist point of view you are right on. But from my perspective, Extension happens at the local level. We are like an army and Specialists represent the artillery or the Air Force. They are often located at a distance (on campus) and lob over missiles (programs or workshops) that have great impact. The local county agents are the front line soldiers who face the battle up close and personal. It is like the battle with ISIS, you can’t win it with airstrikes. The strength of Extension is to hire highly motivated, innovative, people with a strong work ethic in the counties. The ones who will collect the intel and coordinate the major strikes by the specialists. A bomb has a huge impact but only if it is delivered to the right location at the right time. We must also win the technology battle and keep up with the times in program delivery modes. We are change agents, our times are changing, and we must change with it – but some things don’t change. People (clients) don’t care what you know till they know how much you care. It may be trite but still very true. What I love about Extension, is what you have mentioned – we are not selling. We provide information to help people that is non-bias and research based, which is a rare thing in today’s world. The strength of Extension rests on the front line soldier – good ones become heroes in the community, bad ones never get out of the trench – it about character. I don’t diminish the importance of a good educational background but those personal character traits are far more important. Give me a motivated individual who cares about people and cares about doing a good job and the expertise will come naturally. But in closing, we need good specialists who are rewarded for doing Extension work. Papers may please the academia world, and grants my please the grantors and university financial office, but a university should exist to serve the people of the state (of course a good football team is also fun to have). I have some issues on that topic but that is for another day. Thanks for a good blog.

  26. I agree there’s lots of room for improvement in what some Extension offices provide. or really, in telling everyone what’s available. I do use eXtension, and particularly eOrganic, which has some great info. I noticed several other people commenting in Virginia. I want to give praise where praise is due. In Virginia the extension is based at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, but partners with other schools in Virginia. VSU co-hosts the Virginia Biological Farming Conference. I have been to events where a researcher is paired with a farmer to give a workshop, which I think is smart.
    My local extension service is geared to beef and grass farmers (the majority in this county), so it’s not great for vegetable growers like me – I think that’s unavoidable. On the flip side, when I was writing my book Sustainable Market Farming, I would get great info by going to the website of whichever state is famous for the crop I wanted to know about. Idaho for potatoes, for example.
    Recently I had an email from a grower in England who couldn’t find good info online. I guessed he just wasn’t very skilled in internet searches, but I couldn’t find much either. In the US there is a lot of information from reputable sources, by comparison.
    But I do get irritated when the extension service is so picky about sending soil samples in the right boxes, and the commercial forms are hard to find online. And when Master Gardeners at the Help Desk repackaged my sick raspberry plant in plastic before sending it on to the Plant Diagnostic Clinic! The Master Gardeners came between vegetable farmers and the research departments.

  27. Great article. Thank you for giving voice to my thoughts! As field based non-tenured faculty I often feel exactly as you describe – conflicting priorities that aren’t valued (and thus rewarded) by the university.

  28. This is a very good article. As a former Master Gardener in a rural county in upstate NY, I agree with you that the Extension concept is long overdue for a makeover. I dropped out for several reasons: the focus is almost exclusively on agriculture and 4H (we used to have a helpline for strictly horticulture questions, but the powers-that-be killed it); even though we had a fairly sizeable chunk of change in our account, we were never allowed to use it for our winter symposium (if you expect a good turnout, you need a big name to bring the people in); and new, creative ideas were just not encouraged. My interest, focus and ancillary training is ornamental horticulture, and that just wasn’t happening in my Extension. I’ve heard similar complaints from other counties, so I’m pretty sure it’s not just me!

  29. One solution to the “Google effect” is to include the terms “site:edu” and “extension” in the search. Even better, if the name of the nearest university with an extension program is known, include the school’s site like this: “” or “” or “” and so forth.

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