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Michigan growers fund research and Extension

This is the first story in a series about the future of university Extension in various states across the nation.

The Michigan economy is lagging behind the rest of the country, the result of a weakened manufacturing base. But while the state’s agricultural base is growing, the state’s budget is declining, so funding for more research and outreach to potato growers in the state is falling to the industry and its growers.

Extension History

Michigan claims deep roots in scientific agriculture. In 1855, the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan was founded near Lansing, the state capital. The college was one of the first to teach scientific agriculture, and it was a model for land-grant institutions established by the Morrill Act of 1862.

Congress created the Cooperative Extension System in 1914 with the Smith-Lever Act. The system was a partnership between USDA and the 69 land-grant colleges in the United States. The goal of Extension was to improve lives through spreading knowledge, especially to rural people and specifically about agriculture. Funding was to come from governments at the federal, state and local levels.

Extension personnel today are hired by the county, with one-third of their salaries paid by the county and the rest by Michigan State University. Funding MSU Extension comes from a variety of sources:

-13 percent comes from federal funds

-42 percent comes from the state of Michigan, including special funding for Project GREEEN and the Animal Agriculture Initiative

-7 percent comes from counties through memoranda of understanding

-21 percent also comes from the counties for staff, office space, travel and county-level services

-16 percent comes from grants

-Less than 1 percent of Extension funding comes out of the general fund of the university.

Funding from the state has decreased over the last decade. Michigan’s 2008 budget allocates $26.5 million for Extension which, with $24 million from the counties and $8 million from USDA, gives Extension $76 million. The state’s share is down from $28.6 million allocated in 2007, a cut of more than $2 million. State university funding was increased by 2.5 percent, but none of that was directed toward Extension.

Potato Experts

As funding for Extension decreased, the number of agents and county offices decreased. The Extension agents that are left have broader responsibilities, which range from 4-H activities to working with fruit and vegetable growers. Agents no longer are experts in one particular field, which was evident in the state’s potato industry.

“There was no potato experience in county Extension,” said Ben Kudwa, president of the Michigan Potato Industry Commission (MPIC).

Michigan State University researchers stepped in to fill the Extension role, but outreach isn’t a large part of a research or teaching position, so some potato experts were doing double or triple duty, Kudwa said.

Seven years ago, MPIC partnered with the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station through an MSU program called Project GREEEN (Generating Research and Extension to meet Economic and Environmental Needs) to financially support an expert in potatoes who could provide outreach services to potato growers across the state.

That position was filled by potato specialist Chris Long. His Extension appointment is about 25 percent research and 75 percent outreach. The research he conducts – primarily variety trials – is accessible to growers.

“I think of myself as someone who demonstrates the research to growers,” he said.

He sees his position as one of a “first responder” for the potato industry in Michigan. If there’s an issue on a potato farm, he can drop what he’s doing to help. If necessary, he can coordinate with disease or soil specialists.

“It’s a conduit between university faculty and other research to the growers and vice versa. It’s a two-way street.”

Because his position isn’t a university appointment or funded solely by MSU Extension, Long doesn’t have to track down grants or additional funding. Ultimately, he answers to the potato industry in the state and not the university. Being in tune with growers and meeting their needs is more important than meeting the needs of the university.

“If I fail the industry, I think my position would go away quickly,” he said. “I work to try to better the growers and what they do, and that keeps me in my job.”

The biggest challenge for Long is geography. He’s based in East Lansing, home to MSU, so it could take him up to 10 hours to reach potato-growing operations in the Upper Peninsula. He’ll deal more directly with growers in areas he can visit more regularly. He can reach a number of growing operations in St. Joseph and Montcalm counties, but he relies on area Extension as the distance gets further.

“I have a greater need for county Extension agents as the distance gets greater,” he said.
How closely he works with local Extension personnel depends upon their location and their areas of expertise, he added.

“It’s all personality driven,” Long said. “We can complement each other if we have the personalities to and the desire to.”

Future of Extension

The potato Extension model has been successful in Michigan because it has the support of the industry and the university.

“It’s a different approach to funding and a different approach to ag agents,” Long said. “The industry bought into the concept. It was willing to put its money where its mouth was and support it.”

The industry funding could be a model for other areas. If not for the support of MPIC, he or other Extension personnel would have to focus on obtaining grant funding, which would cause them to lose their focus on helping growers.

“The support guides your investment of time,” Long said. “The university is a money-chasing environment.”

He believes in Extension and the role that he plays in it. The key to making the program viable in the future is flexibility, and the MPIC-funded position is a good example of that.

“I think every system has to change with the times, and economics is a big driver of it,” he said. “I really think we have to be aggressive in looking for ways to help the industry and not be passive and wait for the phone to ring.”

MPIC is pleased with how successful Long has been as a potato specialist for the entire state. The outreach to growers makes the industry stronger and builds the relationship between growers and the industry association, Kudwa said.

“It’s a good example of a new way of doing things,” he said. “It’s worked out quite well in Michigan. It’s cost the industry a lot of money, but we see that as part of our responsibility.”

Kudwa doesn’t see the program changing any time soon, and he expects MPIC to continue supporting Long for years to come.

“The more I travel around the country, the more thankful I am for what we have in Michigan,” Kudwa said.

Originally posted Monday, Jan. 28, 2008

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