The nation’s oldest state Extension Service is drastically scaling back the number of county agents who are on the front lines of providing agricultural information to producers.

Iowa State University has announced plans to reduce the number of county Extension directors by three-fourths because of budget cutbacks. Iowa State’s Extension Service predates the national system, having been established in 1903.

“It’s a structure that is 100 years old that we cannot support anymore with the budget cut,” said Jack Payne, vice president for Extension and Outreach at ISU in Ames, Iowa. “It’s been the most difficult decision I’ve been involved in since I’ve been a university administrator.”

Iowa State and other institutions of higher learning in the state have seen their budgets slashed as tax revenues have declined due to the economic downtown. Faculty in other departments at ISU have seen their budgets cut by as much as 33 percent after administrators were told to rein in costs.

Under the current restructuring plan, ISU would eliminate the positions of 92 county Extension directors and five regional directors. They would be replaced by 20 regional directors and one supervisor by the end of the 2009.

The Extension Service would continue to staff all 99 of its county offices. It plans to retain 18 4-H specialists and support personnel.

As in many other states, the Iowa constitution prohibits the state government from operating at a deficit. Iowa State is planning for the loss of $38 million in state funds because of the decline in the state’s tax revenues.

The reorganization is expected to reduce the Extension Service’s $100 million budget by $4.3 million annually, according to university leaders. The latter have been quoted saying they hope additional cutbacks will not be necessary.

Rather than performing the numerous functions now handled by county directors on a daily basis, the regional directors will be expected to travel to each of their county offices once a week, officials said. Much of the advice now dispensed by county directors will be handled by area specialists.

Area agents now function in a similar manner in a number of states, including Mississippi and Missouri. Specialists with the Mississippi State University Extension Service work with growers in several counties on a specific crop. In southeast Missouri, one agent, located in a specific county, handles all of the cotton issues for the Bootheel.

States like Tennessee, on the other hand, continue to staff each county office with an Extension director who has knowledge of all the crops grown in the county.

The nationwide network of state cooperative Extension services was created by the Smith-Lever Act of 1914. Iowa State created its own Extension offices in 1903.

Iowa State President Gregory Geoffrey has said the budget cuts will also involve consolidating five Extension programs into three: agriculture and natural resources, families and 4-H and economic development. The consolidation will result in the loss of 25 positions on the ISU campus.

During a meeting of the Iowa Board of Regents, which oversees the institutions of higher learning, Geoffrey was asked why ISU didn’t cut more regional Extension director positions. “We did consider going to 10 directors but decided that would be too much territory to cover,” he said.

email: flaws@farmpress.com