“Saving Extension is not the right goal.” I said that almost two years ago in a piece on GrowingProduce (www.growingproduce.com/article/24360/the-faces-of-extension-jim-mcferson). Now, I know that doesn’t make me sound very appreciative of the outreach and educational efforts conducted by tree fruit Extension professionals over the past years, here in the Pacific Northwest or elsewhere. And I don’t mean to insinuate that our ag sector producers, processors, and shippers have no need for information and technology transfer.
In fact, I believe the opposite is true and that Extension over time has shown an amazing return on investment.
Right now, given the labor, input, environmental, regulatory, and market challenges we face, our industry’s need for dynamic, well-trained, and well-supported Extension professionals has never been greater. Our current and future profitability requires constant innovation, management decisions informed by science-based knowledge, and individuals who understand industry needs and are capable of developing effective solutions.
However, I also believe the approach and technologies used must change significantly, along with funding sources.
Deployment of Extension generalists on a county-by-county basis has long outlived its usefulness for commercial tree fruit producers in the Pacific Northwest, and other parts of the country, even if funding were available. The greater need is for Extension professionals trained in more specific fields of relevant agricultural sciences, serving on a regional, multiregional, or multistate basis.
These professionals should have a background and interest in a systems approach, including socioeconomic aspects, along with a commitment to team research and the capability to understand enterprise business planning and marketing. Perhaps most important, they need outstanding oral and written communication skills for both technical and non-technical audiences.
Is it even necessary any more to emphasize the importance of communication via electronic media? While hard copy bulletins, production guides, and illustrated handouts still have a role, just as traditional in-person educational meetings do, the limited time and expanded geographic coverage for today’s Extension professionals mandates internet-based information transfer.
Similarly, it is necessary to emphasize the funding stream for information, and technology transfer has clearly and thoroughly transmogrified. Land grant universities and industry stakeholders cannot expect local, state, and federal governments to fund Extension just because we have always had it. Or because we continually assert, mostly to each other, that we cannot do without it.
Support From Within
As I stated two years ago: “To me it’s all about maintaining our competitive edge so our producers remain profitable. Unless we’re clear on that point, all we’re doing is saving institutions. We need an ever more vibrant public-private partnership.”
That approach explicitly requires implementation of different approaches not just from the public sector, but equally so from the private sector. Thus, industry stakeholders have a responsibility to substantially increase their investment to support Extension activities. We should indeed expect Extension professionals to devote sufficient time to acquire external funding and leverage resources, but provide them with base funding that enables success.
I sure hope this is the correct path, because it’s what we are attempting to do in Washington State. We have provided a $32 million endowment gift to our land grant institution — Washington State University (WSU). Those grower dollars will create a permanent legacy focused on WSU’s Research and Extension Centers in Prosser and Wenatchee, located within our tree fruit production areas.
In addition, we have specified $11 million of that gift is used to create and implement a new, visionary strategy for Extension activities. This is exactly the same amount we have committed to research faculty activities and we hope manifests our commitment to research AND Extension.
Such a grand vision requires real commitment and real leadership. The financial and strategic commitment from our growers is now in place. The institutional and resource commitment from WSU is as well.
Fittingly, the very first investment of our industry gift has been utilized to fill the first Endowed Chair in Extension at WSU. Most folks involved in tree fruit in the U.S., and certainly all readers of American Fruit Grower, will immediately recognize the person who has filled that position.
Dr. Desmond Layne is now the Tree Fruit Extension Program Leader and Professor of Pomology in the WSU Department of Horticulture. Des and his family made the move from Clemson University in South Carolina in February. Based out of Wenatchee, Des will now help craft and implement this new vision, lead tree fruit Extension activities, and provide a focal point for a public-private partnership that we all hope maintains our current and future profitability.
In addition, Des will continue to contribute his insight and perspective to this publication, coming from a different part of the country now, with a few less peaches and lot more apples, cherries, and pears on his agenda. I have no doubt Des will have as much success in this new role as he had previously.
Finally, as I look at it, then, we have not really “saved Extension.” I think we are in the process of redefining what information and technology transfer in tree fruit means to the Washington industry and Washington State University. I look forward to sharing our story in the coming issues.