Photo by Katie Scheidt
It’s a warm and sunny January morning when professor Mike Ballweg enters the room, ready to get to work with more than 40 people waiting for the day’s lesson. His students — a mixture of local farmers and agricultural agents — are arrayed around the tables of the local pub, which has opened early to host the seminar.
It’s an unusual setting for a tenured faculty member, but it’s just a normal Friday for Ballweg, who serves as the agricultural agent for Sheboygan County.
Ballweg is one of more than 20 faculty stationed in UW-Extension county offices throughout the state as agricultural agents. Together, they serve as an essential intermediary between UW-Madison’s research and resources and the farmers and agricultural experts who put it into practice.
UW-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and its $182 million budget has long been among the world’s leading sources of agricultural research and innovation, ranking 10th among universities worldwide for agricultural research impact according to the 2017 QS world university rankings.
But based in urban Madison, it can be hard for the university’s research to reach the far-flung areas of the state where farming and agriculture comprise the greatest share of the economy. Extension faculty members, who have the same academic training and background as campus faulty but live and work in the communities they serve, are well-positioned to bridge that gap.
“Many of us will spend a good part of our careers in a community and we get to know a lot of people; we interact with them and rub shoulders and exchange ideas on an informal basis,” said Ballweg, who began as Sheboygan County’s agricultural agent more than 30 years ago. “That’s what I think makes Extension so powerful and influential is that relationship.”
Agricultural agents play a dual role as a source of information for their own communities and for campus researchers, and the input the agents receive from local farmers helps direct research at campuses across the state.
According to Vijai Pandian, horticultural agent for Brown County, his position also makes him uniquely responsive to specific community needs and allows him to apply his academic background to local problems that might escape the attention of campus researchers.
“Going forward with our new alignment with UW-Madison, I’m hoping that we can even do more [local research projects] than we have.”
A few years ago Pandian said several Green Bay residents came to him hoping to grow blueberries in their backyards but had found that the soil in their area was not conducive to blueberry plants. Spurred on by those comments, Pandian conducted a series of field trials using the county office’s research materials and found a way to grow blueberries in large containers that protected the plants from the local soil.
According to Pandian, the solution was successful enough that other producers in the area have inquired about using the method to grow blueberries on a commercial scale.
“It was a huge success and I’m really thrilled that we did this kind of applied research and demonstration trial in the community,” he said.
The project’s success, according to Pandian, hinged on his ability to conduct research trials without having to go through the formal research approval processes typical on campuses.
“We are kind of like a non-formal type of research educators, and we do it a little bit differently,” he said. “We do know the needs of the community and sometimes those needs can be easily met by the Extension educator by doing these kinds of community-based demonstration and research trials.”
Alongside their role as community-based researchers, Extension faculty members also serve as educators, even though they don’t teach classes in the traditional sense.
“While we don’t teach in a classroom three days a week or five days a week like how we went to school, we do a lot of educational programs locally,” Ballweg said.
Extension educators are busiest in the winter, when farmers get a reprieve from the rigors of the growing season. Ballweg said his typical schedule includes anywhere from two to five seminars a week, with up to 100 attendees at each, from December through mid-March.
Agricultural agents have no set curriculum or areas of focus: All of their instruction is based around the needs of the community that they identify. According to multiple agents, it’s not unusual for their instructional plans to change based on feedback from community members and local growing conditions.
In addition to teaching farmers about new techniques and practices, both Ballweg and Pandian also serve as educators in Extension’s Master Gardener Program. The program provides classroom and hands-on gardening training in exchange for 24 hours of community service each year. In 2017, the program certified more than 2,800 volunteers who performed more than 190,000 hours of community service throughout the state.
According to Director Mike Maddox, the program allows Extension to expand its reach even further into the community than would be possible with paid staff.
“Master gardeners really allow us to amplify the work we’re doing because they’re coming from these different communities,” Maddox said. “They’re doing our transformational education where they’re actually making changes in people’s attitudes and behaviors and things that they’re doing in the gardens of their communities to make a difference.”
Agricultural agents are currently part of UW-Extension’s Cooperative Extension branch, which also includes Leadership Wisconsin and 4-H, an agriculturally-focused youth development program. Last November, the UW System’s Board of Regents approved a merger of cooperative Extension with UW-Madison as part of a system-wide consolidation of two- and four-year colleges.
The restructuring could be a plus for agricultural agents who work closely with UW-Madison researchers, allowing them to more easily acquire funds and conduct research on campus and in the field.
“Going forward with our new alignment with UW-Madison, I’m hoping that we can even do more [local research projects] than we have,” Ballweg said. “I think there are some great opportunities to do more work together.”
Specific plans for the realignment haven’t been announced, but the merger itself is a significant change for Extension, which has traditionally operated as its own entity but will now compete for funding with and be administered by the Madison campus.
That has some stakeholders worried that Extension will no longer be able to effectively serve its purpose as a resource for the entire state and will prioritize the needs of the university over areas far from a UW System campus.
“When you consolidate it under one campus as it is now it is going to be relating to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and not necessarily a system-wide entity on its own,” said state Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland. “And I regret what might come of that.”
“Many of us will spend a good part of our careers in a community and we get to know a lot of people; we interact with them and rub shoulders and exchange ideas on an informal basis.”
Cooperative Extension has reduced its workforce by more than 20 employees in the last year, following a $3.6 million cut in funding in the 2015-’17 biennial budget. Additionally, 25 agricultural educator positions across the state are vacant, and some counties are without a full-time agricultural agent for the first time in decades.
The cuts have been pronounced in northern, rural areas of the state. Rusk County, north of Eau Claire, has multiple cooperative extension positions empty, while Pierce County will not be funding its agricultural agent position going forward.
Bewley’s district is one of the most rural in the state, and she said that her constituents rely on the accessibility and knowledge of local extension agents for a variety of everyday services. According to Bewley and Ballweg, Cooperative Extension is the primary way that rural communities access the resources of the university and thus fulfil the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea.
“Where do you go to identify a bug? You go into the Extension office and you show them what you’ve got and the ag agent will go out to your field and help you try to identify what this pest is,” Bewley said. “In rural communities they know that. They are used to it and it’s a part of how we get things done.”
The restructuring is running behind its planned schedule, and even five months after the regents voted to approve the plan details are still unclear. Without assurances that cooperative extension will continue to exist in its current form, Bewley is concerned that her constituents might be left without a resource they’ve relied on for years.
“It’s sort of like going to your library: It’s a resource that you count on and when it’s not there you scratch your head and wonder where you’re gonna go,” she said.