New legislative and budget proposals could create more UW-Madison Division of Extension agents, who exemplify the Wisconsin Idea by bringing university research to agricultural communities across Wisconsin.
A Senate bill introduced Friday would require the UW Board of Regents to allocate $1 million in additional funding each year for Extension services at the UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS).
The proposal is supported by multiple groups representing the agriculture industry. The bill was referred to the Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges, but is not yet scheduled for a vote.
The bill would specifically direct funding toward applied agricultural research. Faculty members funded through Extension work with farmers at the county level Wisconsin to conduct research to solve problems and develop improved farming methods.
CALS currently has about 40 faculty that are partially funded by Extension. The number of faculty has been decreasing over the last 30 years due to a decline in state funding. These funding issues have only gotten worse in the wake of the pandemic, according to Associate Dean for External Relations and Advancement at CALS Heidi Zoerb.
“Like other schools and colleges at UW-Madison, the pandemic has had a significant impact on our operations and had a negative impact on our budget. Along with the rest of the university, we are currently addressing a budget reduction of more than 4 percent for our research and instructional programs and our research and Extension programs,” Zoerb said.
Patrick Robinson, Associate Dean of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the Division of Extension, said the reduction in personnel led to a loss of expertise in “all areas of the organization.”
Gov. Tony Evers said Friday that he would propose funding for additional Extension specialists and county agents in his upcoming biennial budget. That proposal is part of his planned $43 million investment into agriculture.
In a January special session on agriculture, Evers asked for $2 million during the 2020-21 fiscal year to fund 20 county-based agriculture positions, but the bill did not pass. In their 2021-23 budget request, the Board of Regents asked for support for those 20 positions.
Douglas Reinemann, a UW-Madison professor and CALS Associate Dean for Outreach and Extension, said he hopes CALS would gain about six or seven faculty positions.
“These faculty would be focused on research of benefit to Wisconsin farmers and educational programs to help farmers adopt new technologies and practices to make agriculture more sustainable — environmentally, economically and socially,” Reinemann said.
Robinson said increased funding would “fill a lot of gaps” related to faculty and outreach expertise.
“It’s hard for me to overstate how important [the proposals] would be. It would be the biggest increase in funding that we’ve seen probably in my career, and I’ve been in Extension for about 18 years,” said Robinson. “It would help tremendously.”
Zoerb described the roles that Extension specialists play in the research and discovery arm for many Wisconsin agricultural sectors.
“These faculty members develop new fruit and vegetable varieties that are better suited to specific climate and environmental conditions. They develop health guidelines for plants and animals and test practices to determine which will have the best overall returns for Wisconsin farmers,” Zoerb explained. “The discoveries made by these specialists will contribute to best practices that will improve the economic and environmental well-being of the agricultural sector they serve.”
Zoerb added that agriculture and related sectors are vital components of Wisconsin’s economy, generating $104.8 billion in economic activity and 437,700 jobs.
“UW-Madison Extension provides the conduit between research and practical solutions for farmers, business owners, nonprofits and families. Extension specialists at UW-Madison and other campuses and Extension educators based in local communities are operating in every county across the state, translating research for various farmers and business owners,” Zoerb said.
Robinson, who is located on the UW-Green Bay campus, said Extension brings Wisconsinites from across the state together, with faculty members and educators in every county.
“The value of that is we are able to leverage the great work that goes on in the research realm, especially at UW-Madison but on partner campuses as well, and bring that to the people of Wisconsin,” Robinson said. “We always say we are the Wisconsin idea in action.”