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Cooperative Extension: An Essential State Service

By Paul Torgersen

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 17 - January 26, 1995

(Editor's note: The following editorial was published this week in the Richmond Times Dispatch.)

As the Virginia General Assembly begins its deliberations, fundamental assumptions about how our tax dollars are spent and the role government should play in people's lives will be debated. A consensus will be forged about what our citizens want from government and what they are willing to pay.

The administration has proposed cutting Virginia Cooperative Extension's budget by $7.3 million and agriculture and forestry research by $4.9 million. These cuts would eliminate essential services throughout the commonwealth. Extension and research budgets and personnel have already been downsized by more than 20 percent. The additional cuts would more than double those figures and fundamentally alter programs that have successfully empowered people to help themselves for many decades.

Governor Allen has outlined a reasonable test for determining which programs he thinks should be funded: Is it an essential state service? If education and economic development are fundamental functions of government, then the record shows that Cooperative Extension and research are essential services to all the people of Virginia.

Cooperative Extension is not a farm-support program. It is an educational program. It takes scientific, unbiased knowledge generated at Virginia Tech and delivers that information directly to Virginians so they can make informed decisions about their lives, businesses, and communities.

Extension is active in our farm and rural communities, and it is at work in our cities and in every county. This is not big government run amuck nor elite "experts" telling people how to live. Local government and citizen advisory councils help set Extension priorities because each area of the state has its own needs and concerns.

Importantly, much of the work of Extension is performed by volunteers. In 1993, 42,000 volunteers donated 760,000 hours helping their fellow Virginians. Local government backs up its participation in Cooperative Extension by contributing 25 percent of the overall cost, and the federal government contributes another 25 percent.

Long before "family values" became a battle cry, Congress first directed Extension in 1914 to strengthen families by building self-reliance and personal responsibility through home-economics programs. Those programs continue today. The Family Resource Management Program educates volunteers who work directly with people experiencing credit problems. With bankruptcy filings in Virginia rising 150 percent between 1981 and 1991, that is an educational program that has real meaning to the state.

Extension supports local government efforts in Northern Virginia to assist legal immigrants. This program, which started at the request of the Arlington business community, is now fully financed by Arlington County. The program has value and addresses a real need in this fast-growing metropolitan area.

Extension personnel are working with local governments across the state to protect our water supply. Homeowners, who account for a sizeable amount of pollution runoff, are educated as to the proper use of pesticides and fertilizers so they do not threaten our drinking water, rivers or the Chesapeake Bay.

A significant component of our Extension operations is the 4-H program. At this point, some 120,000 young people are involved in 4-H. If ever there was a program designed to help young people build a solid foundation for life, keeping them from getting into trouble, and avoiding more costly intervention programs later, it is 4-H.

Some people have questioned our involvement in "non-agricultural" programs; yet a 1993 study of Cooperative Extension by the Department of Planning and Budget recommended the university "...alter the balance in its program[s] in order to place increased emphasis on educational programs for families, youth, and the environment." The 1995 budget bill states "The plan shall also clearly identify areas of enhanced programing for youth and families and the environment." Cooperative Extension has tried to be responsive to the state's guidelines, but shifting priorities make that difficult.

Certainly agriculture has been and continues to be the most significant portion of our Extension activities. Today, the agricultural and forestry industries account for roughly one-fourth of state employment and gross state product. Agriculture remains a vibrant and growing industry that has experienced 63 percent real growth in the past 40 years. Virginia Tech's research and Extension programs are engines driving this growth.

Incredibly, this level of productivity has been achieved for pennies. When you look at the 13 southern states--running south to Florida and west to Oklahoma and Texas--Virginia ranks 11th in per capita spending for both Extension and research at $3.43 and $3.50, respectively.

Cooperative Extension meets the most basic test of government: It provides an essential educational service to the people of Virginia, and it does it efficiently and effectively. It was for these reasons that two years ago 139 of the 140 members of the General Assembly co-signed our amendment in support of Cooperative Extension. It was an essential program then, and it is an essential program now.