Farm Horizons, Sept. 2004

University Extension Service: trying to do more with less

By Darla Swanson

The dust has settled following reductions in the University of Minnesota Extension Office over the past few years, with the end result being a leaner version of services and resources.

Between 2002 and 2004, a total of 95 of 455 positions were eliminated, including field educators (both local and regional), campus faculty, and central extension administration. However, 50 4-H program coordinators were added.

The reductions are reported to be through retirement and layoffs.

Extension staff members still on staff after the cuts are expected to cover a larger area, rather than just one per county as before.

Many extension employees say the changes are more about restructure than staffing cuts, although the numbers have been slashed in several area offices.

“Our staff functions very well,” commented Mary Anderson from the extension service based in Buffalo. Wright County enjoys strong support from the county commissioners, she said.

Even so, Wright County’s staff was cut from about 12 positions to six, which is what it is today.

In fact, many county extension offices depend on the financial support of strained county budgets.

The changes to extension came in two waves, commented Barb Sorensen, a regional extension educator for Carver and Scott counties.

First was the restructuring of the educators in 2002, which followed the implementing of regional offices that the educators work from in early 2004.

The cuts were an effort for extension to become more efficient and effective, according to Aimee Viniard-Weideman, communications director for the University of Minnesota Extension Services.

Prior to the changes, educators oversaw one county and were regarded as generalists providing a wide variety of information.

After the cuts, educators became overseers of regions consisting of two or more counties, and offered more focused information to a larger demographic area.

“It wasn’t so much as cuts, but doing things differently. For many years, extension was filling every need for every request,” commented Pat Morreim, regional director at Andover Regional Center (overseeing Carver, Anoka, and Washington Counties).

“They’re not generalists any more who answer every call that comes into the office,” Morreim said.

Morreim describes the changes as an effort for extension services to become more targeted and focused.

As projected in 2001, extension programs now fall into three categories: agriculture and environmental resources, leadership and civic engagement, and youth and family development.

All of the programs have a direct tie to the University of Minnesota.

There are now 18 regional centers and a varied number of educators for each region.

Educators serve counties that have needs in their specific fields of expertise.

With the educators on a more focused task, counties have the opportunity to determine how much they want to fund and what programs are a priority for them.

Since the restructuring, educators have become completely funded by state and federal dollars.

Formerly, 35 percent of their salaries were funded by the county they serviced.

Counties, which are tight on dollars, may choose to spend their dollars funding local staff if they feel it’s a priority.

“Counties have been faced with difficult budget decisions and some have reduced county extension support staff positions,” Viniard-Weideman said.

Still, Morreim feels that the changes are positive and extension is a more focused organization.

When there are questions that an educator is no longer able to address, they redirect people to a help-line, or someone else within extension.

“(We’re) just delivering help in a different way,” Morreim said.

As far as the long-term effects of the restructuring Sorensen said that “it’s probably too soon to tell.”

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