Funding Extension vital to research success

Reduction of funding for agricultural research and extension programs may give the appearance of saving taxpayer dollars, but the reduction in resources often means that sudden agricultural crises cost more. For instance, the entrance of soybean rust could have cost soybean growers millions of dollars in losses or wasted usage of fungicides had it not been for a quick, targeted outreach effort by extension plant pathologists. Apple growers in Kentucky would have faced possibly huge losses to codling moth because of OP insecticide cancellations if University of Kentucky extension specialists had not demonstrated a new IPM management program that is now increasing yields beyond those growers saw when they relied on the former insecticide. Yet those university extension resources are currently threatened with increasing federal and state funding cuts, according to a letter to the editor of Phytopathology journal.

Appearing in the July 2012 issue of Phytopathology, the letter to the editor, written by seven university extension plant pathologists from different regions of the country, states the benefits that extension has had on agriculture, how the reduction of federal dollars has affected plant pathology extension programs, and suggestions for actions that can reverse the current trend.

Although the examples in the article focus on plant pathology specifically, the arguments apply to any extension program, including those for insects, weeds and livestock.

The authors begin in 2009, when wheat and corn farmers in the Midwest battled an intensive epidemic of Fusarium graminearum (scab), a pathogen that produces several mycotoxins. Because of food safety concerns, the sale price for grain plummeted, until extension plant pathologists in several Midwestern states began educating growers about how to identify specific molds. Additional releases of research data on grain quality data actually led to an increase of $0.50 per bushel of corn. In other parts of the country, extension specialists worked with growers to manage late blight on tomatoes and potatoes and powdery mildew on wine grapes.

The university Extension Service began in 1914 under the Smith-Lever Act. Extension began as a “one-way process in which the university transfers its expertise to key constituents” (Spanier). Since that time, the face of agriculture has changed dramatically. Growers are more likely to have a high school degree or higher education level. New technologies have changed management recommendations. And growers receive their information from a variety of sources, including nonprofits and agrichemical companies that may not give completely unbiased information.

In addition, federal funding changes have also affected how extension works with clients. Programs that funded research on pesticide alternatives (e.g., Crops at Risk and Risk Avoidance Mitigation) were eliminated. Formula funding has been increasingly replaced by competitive funding. Last year, funding for the National Plant Diagnostic Network was initially eliminated by the U.S. House of Representatives and then restored at a reduced level. Many universities can no longer support faculty who are only extension; many extension specialists have a large research responsibility. Even funding for extension-only projects is becoming harder to find and is often combined with research grants with an extension component.

For extension to succeed in the long-term, the authors contend, funding for extension must remain stable and become more accessible. For that to happen, they discuss four recommendations for federal agencies and universities to consider. Although the recommendations center around plant pathology specifically, they can be applied to any IPM related discipline.

  1. Maintain a level of formula funds to provide basic, long-term support for extension plant pathology personnel for all states.
  2. Increase readily available funding to address plant pathology issues that emerge within a growing season or production cycle.
  3. Maintain and enhance grant programs with funding to address regional and state issues.
  4. Ensure that extension components of large grants support real client linkages and extension programs that are focused on support of growers. Don’t support “add-ons” as valid extension components.

The true success of research projects is tied to the practical application of the technology, device or chemistry produced by the project. For growers to fully understand how to use those products, extension is essential.

Article Source: Everts, K.L., Osborne, L., Gevens, A.J., Vasquez, S.J., Gugino, B.K., Ivors, K., and Harmon, C. 2012. Extension plant pathology: Strengthening resources to continue serving the public interest. Phytopathology. 102: 652-655. Retrieved June 22, 2012 from http://apsjournals.apsnet.org/doi/abs/10.1094/PHYTO-09-11-0251?journalCode=phyto.

Other references:

Spanier, G., Spikes, D.R., Byrne, J.V., Magrath, C.P., Barker, J.F., Bernstine, D.O., Bowen, R.M., Coor, L.F., Hoff, P.S., Jishke, M.C., Kirwan, W.E., Lawrence, F.L., McDonald, J., McPherson, M.P., Moeser, J., O’Brien, G.M.S.L., Payton, B.F., Ramaley, J.A., Reynolds, W.A., Risser, P., Smith, S.H., Stukel, J.J., Vanderhoef, L., Ward, D., Young, C.E., and Yudof, M. (2001, January). Returning to our roots: Executive summaries of the reports of the Kellogg Commission on the future of state and land-grant universities.

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