By the time this column appears, more should be known about the future of the UC Extension system and whether it indeed has much of a future.
The news CAFA received in late May indicated it was too late to stave off proposed budget cuts of 30 percent for Extension and 20 percent for ag research. It's another reminder that agriculture is increasingly being put in a position to solve complex problems without the support system that serves the farming community and the non-farm sector.
Since 94 percent of the UCCE budget goes for salaries, it's easy to see where the cuts will fall. In early spring, CAFA received a call from a concerned PCA who, for many years, has cooperated in UC research projects. He asked for the association's help in getting the word out to its members that state legislators needed to get the message that Extension and ag research can't afford to take another hit. At the time, CAFA was getting ready to send a letter to its members, asking them to express their concerns to their legislators.
In a follow up conversation, the PCA expressed concern over the fate of two recently hired farm advisors who work with major crops in his county. It took several years to fill vacancies for the two farm advisors' positions after one transferred to northern California and the other retired. The PCA was resigned to seeing younger specialists who represent the future of the UC system become casualties of California's severe budget crunch. At the same time, veteran Extension specialists will take “early retirement” and leave a void that may never be filled.
It has been obvious to most people in agriculture that Extension and research hasn't recovered from the last blood letting in 1991 when a large number of experienced farm advisors left the system. That recalls a conversation with a young farm advisor who traveled to a California Weed Science Society annual meeting with three, recently-retired UC weed scientists. During the trip to the meeting it dawned on her that the trio represented “more than 100 years” of combined experience. Of the three positions that became vacant more than a decade ago only two have been filled and one was finally filled about three years ago.
In the current budget battle, the UC education system seems to have survived in good shape with a 2 percent cut in funding. But Extension is considered to be an “outreach and public service” function, making it an easier target when it comes finding ways to help solve a $35 billion budget gap.
Ironically, the budget woes facing Extension and research come at a time of mounting regulatory pressure, especially in areas of irrigation management and water quality. As CAFA pointed out in its letter to members of the State Senate and Assembly, these are issues that affect all Californians.
It's obvious that CAFA and other agricultural organizations will need to work more closely to solve issues of mutual interest such as water quality. The big challenge, however, will come in finding creative ways to fund research projects needed to adjust to changes facing California's largest industry.