Is Extension still relevant? George Czapar thinks so.
Czapar, who heads up the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension Service, has seen major changes over his decades of service with the university’s ag outreach program. Today, he must deal with a state budget crisis that has put 20 percent of his annual budget in jeopardy.
He is no stranger to Extension, having worked for the program-based service most of his career. He recently discussed the challenges and opportunities facing the service.
How many people work in Extension in Illinois?
Czapar: “We’re just shy of 700 around the state. That includes educators, clerical support. There are several different job roles in Extension. Educators develop programs, then we have program coordinators, community workers and others.”
How is Extension organized?
Czapar: “We’re organized around 27 Extension units. Each one is a combination of several different counties. Some areas may have two to three counties together to form a unit. We’ve got an office in almost every county in the state. Still, we don’t have the presence we used to.”
How have educators adapted to changing technology and specializations?
Czapar: “We’ve tried to have our folks in the field get more connected with the research area. They keep up on things. Some branch into new areas.
“I started in weed science, then contamination of water. It turned into an area where I spent most of my time looking at water quality in agriculture. Other educators have done similar things, developing specializations. We’re always trying to adjust.
“Back in the old days, there was an ag adviser who was an expert in many things. I was an educator in weed science, and it was hard enough to keep up on things in my field, let alone everything. Not everyone can be an expert and up-to-date on everything.
“We’ve gone with a regional approach. They cover a much bigger area.”
What is the Extension’s budget, where does the money come from, and how has the state’s economic crisis affected the service?
Czapar: “Our average budget is about $50 million a year. Obviously, we’re struggling in Illinois. We have multiple sources of funding. One is federal dollars; those have been pretty stable. Unique in Illinois, we have a tax base in 92 counties.
“We continue to have real strong support at the federal and local level. It’s the state level that we’re struggling with. We also have local funds — 4-H and local units, donations, private support. That goes into the local support.
“It’s a $10 million line in the (state) budget. Last year, Illinois didn’t deliver any of it. They just zeroed us out. This year we were in the budget for the full $10 million, but … it’s being held up. We’re trying to work with our legislators to get that money released. This was money that was supposed to be a pass-through. It’s a very significant amount.
“It’s something I’m losing a lot of my hair over. We required all of our county units to maintain a reserve, to build up a balance. We’re being very, very conservative with federal and local dollars. More than 20 positions have not been filled. We’re cutting corners.”
What steps are being taken to make Extension more relevant in a changing society?
Czapar: “I’ve tried to make a closer connection to research our faculty is generating on campus. All the proposals to fund research are requiring the researchers to show broader impacts. How does it help society? How does it help people? How does it make a difference? That’s where Extension has had a big role, how we can take the results of that information and it’s not in a journal article sitting on a shelf.”
Have factors such as the dwindling percentage of people directly involved in production agriculture and the Information Age driven such changes?
Czapar: “It could be part of that. Farmers will go anywhere in the world now for information. In the field, we’ve tried to broaden our reach beyond the traditional ag base and get into areas like local foods and small farms. There’s a lot of interest (and) push for more urban agriculture. That’s something we’re trying to help support.
“We’ve tried to broaden our reach. Probably the most obvious is our 4-H program. One thing we’ve done very successfully is we’ve tried to make that available across the state to other audiences, urban and metro audiences. We’ve tried to broaden Extension to more people, to make our resources available. I’m trying to promote agriculture in Cook County.
“But if I talk about food and clean water, that’s something everybody can understand and see the importance of. We’re always trying to be more open to other audiences who wouldn’t think about agriculture otherwise.”