Late last fall, some troubling information came my way regarding the university’s administration of the Virginia Cooperative Extension program.
The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences decided to develop a restructuring plan to reorganize the way it implements the extension program, which provides advice and support for farmers, consumers and households across Virginia and organizes the state’s 4-H program.
As it exists now, the cooperative extension operates offices in nearly every locality in Virginia. My knowledge of the program comes mainly from my lifelong participation and association with the 4-H program and from my experience with agricultural extension in my home of Washington County.
The proposed restructuring plan — which was created without the input of extension agents or other stakeholders at the local level — aims to drastically cut down on the number of offices and agents across the state, consolidating services into “business centers” that would serve multiple counties or cities.
While this type of organization may seem efficient from a practical standpoint, it could effectively kill the positive impact that extension has on Virginia’s communities.
Virginians have come to rely on the extension service as a valuable resource for a wide array of problems and needs, and one of the reasons the program is so frequently used is its accessibility.
If the university moves forward with the proposed plan, accessibility will surely be affected, leaving many farmers and consumers with few ways to get valuable information when they have questions.
Furthermore, VCE administers the 4-H program statewide and on the local level. With more than 150,000 youth and 20,000 volunteers, Virginia 4-H is one of the largest, farthest-reaching youth organizations in the state.
Youth involved in 4-H programs have the opportunity to gain important life skills through a broad spectrum of project areas including agriculture, public speaking, citizenship, science and technology.
If this restructuring plan is implemented, county and city 4-H programs, which have already faced significant budget cuts, would lose the dedicated people who make 4-H so successful for Virginia’s youth.
Furthermore, upon the plan’s implementation, many local extension offices around the state would close. The number of agents who deal directly with farmers, consumers and youth in the field would decrease, and new “unit coordinator” positions would mean an increase in the number of administrator positions that would involve no contact with people in the field.
How could anyone who understands the mission of cooperative extension, as being for the service of the people, see this as a reflection of that mission?
Since the restructuring plan was first released in October, negative reactions has been widespread and severe. Petitions have been circulated among concerned citizens, and a number of county boards of supervisors, who share responsibility with the state in funding local extension offices, have passed resolutions in opposition to the plan.
By implementing this plan, Tech would be destroying a long-standing relationship with local governments that has been critical to the success of extension programming.
Even members of the Virginia General Assembly have been outspoken critics, and some have even gone as far as to question Tech’s allocation of funds that were budgeted for local extension services.