As the lackluster economy puts a stranglehold on state budgets and officials search for places to make cuts, one target of the ax is agriculture programs, including Extension.

Some were potentially draconian. Michigan was threatened with a 44 percent cut in funding for Extension and research stations after narrowly escaping elimination through line item vetoes. In October, however, the governor approved a budget that included the programs.

Ag economist Dave Schweikhardt, formerly at Mississippi State and now at Michigan State, says, “The bottom line is that state and local governments are a major contractionary force in the economy right now, because their only choice is to raise taxes or cut spending.

“We are going to see teachers, policemen, and firemen laid off all over the country in the next year. In many states, prisons and health care are eating the entire budget, and 100 percent of the cuts in government budgets must come from discretionary programs like higher education. This year, Michigan will spend more on prisons than on higher education, and I doubt ours is the only state where this is true.”

It is beyond ironic, he notes, that “we may one day be telling our grandchildren that in this recession ‘I paid more for a guy to sit in jail than I did for your father’s education.’”

An agribusiness executive, who worked for many years in a Mid-South university system before moving to the private sector, told me in an e-mail, “From my perspective, the university system moved from production agriculture to environmental quality and horticulture.

“I had the opportunity to work with some of the most talented individuals in production agriculture, but in the university system opportunities for advancement were not very rewarding and many of them moved to the private sector.

“Instead of finding solutions for producers, the university employee must spend a great amount of time trying to find funding. Conversely, in the private sector, if you utilize your training and you perform, you are very well rewarded.”

Many “highly respected experts” in university ag systems have been lost to the private sector, he notes — and others have been encouraged to retire early to help with budget crunches. “When mentors like these leave the university system, the young professionals can’t develop to their full potential.”

An Extension agent from a Southeast state wrote: “It is sad to see that the sour economy has so many Land Grant systems chasing research dollars at the expense of Extension budgets. The two must go hand in hand, but unfortunately the Land Grants that keep abandoning the Extension part of the mission are finding themselves more and more without an advocacy group to lobby for Extension dollars.”

As agriculture has evolved, so has Extension. Some, however, question whether it has maintained its relevance.

Next week: Will Extension be the modern-day equivalent of the Pony Express?

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com