‘Year 2000′ Extension Service: Leaner, specialized, plugged-in

'Year 2000' Extension Service: Leaner, specialized, plugged-in The South Dakota Cooperative Extension Service (CES) will go into the new millennium "a leaner, smarter, teaching machine."

The CES will use up-to-date delivery systems and information in its historical mission to help South Dakotans improve their lives through education, using science-based knowledge focused on issues and needs.

The 160 county and state professionals in South Dakota's extension "family" emerged April 15 from an intense three-day conference in Brookings to go home and launch "The Extension Vision for the 21st Century."

"The Vision" is an original and futuristic plan developed over the last year to reorganize, refocus, re-educate and re-tool this 85-year-old adult and youth education outreach organization to meet the needs of the changing world.

The gathering of the "Extension family" in Brookings was to explain the vision, recap its history, answer questions and brainstorm how to successfully implement the vision across the state.

Most dramatic among changes effective April 13:

* The time-revered "county agent," once immortalized on canvas with a 4-H'er and a calf by nostalgic artist Norman Rockwell, now becomes a "county educator" along with 4-H and family and consumer science agents.

The new title better depicts the broader role of county staff as gender-neutral brokers of current educational information for "agriculture, family and youth" and facilitators of distance education for certificate or credit from the entire university system.

* Previously excelling as generalists, county educators in South Dakota now will specialize in one of six areas:

1. Agronomy, 2. Livestock-dairy, 3. 4-H and youth development, 4. Family and consumer sciences, 5. Horticulture, and 6. Farm management marketing.

* The new theater of operations, once the "county," or since 1987 the "cluster," now becomes "the field education unit." Thirteen such field education units (FEUs) have been devised and superimposed across the map of South Dakota and its 67 counties.

* Each county will preserve its county identity and keep the physical presence of an Extension educator in the county Extension office. However, now each educator will apply their specialties across several county lines.

* Filed education units will be as large as nine counties, as in the case of the FEU cornered by Buffalo, Charles Mix and Sanborn counties … or as small as one county, in the case of Minnehaha, the smallest FEU, geographically, and largest by population. A common sized FEU is four to seven counties. Each FEU will operate somewhat different because each geographic area has different natural resources and therefore different issues to address. One size does not fit all.

* Travel and answering questions across county lines and outside of field education units will be expected, necessary and commonplace.

* Clientele across the state will have access to a higher level of expertise within easy reach. This will be achieved by hiring new people competent in the specialty for which they are hired, and by stepping-up training for educators already in the field. Current educators also will be re-assigned according to their "strong suit," and a mentoring program begins between current and new hires and state specialists.

* Reduction in overall Extension staff by about 14 positions, to 147, assuming level funding. Reduction will be accomplished through attrition. Nobody will be laid-off or asked to relocate. County staff numbers would be reduced from 110 to 102.

* Tooling up: County educators will have the updated technical hardware needed to respond in real time. Each county office has an up-to-date computer, printer and modem, plus e-mail and Internet access via a college-level server at SDSU. In addition, each received digital cameras and optical digital scanners April 15. Most already are working on their own county-level home pages on the Internet/Worldwide Web. Extension Computer Services now is moving on to implementing Level II technology, which will include equipment and software for delivery of Internet-based coursework, to benefit both county educators and their clientele.

* There will be no "dropping the ball" when a question comes in that one educator can't answer, the "Extension family" as told in Brookings. The question will go to someone who can answer it, first within the FEU, and, if necessary, to a state Extension specialist on the SDSU campus or another university.

* South Dakotans will eventually be able to go to their county Extension office to enroll in higher education coursework for credit to be delivered via the Internet, S.D. Public Television, or other means.

The broader framework of these changes � upgrading while downsizing � was in response to the request to evaluate the system by the Legislative Appropriations Committee and the Board of Regents.

In response, "Extension Vision for the 21st Century," was written by Fred Cholick, dean of the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences, and Larry Tidemann, interim director of the S.D. Cooperative Extension Service, and presented to SDSU President Peggy Gordon Elliott. It was approved by the Board of Regents in December, 1998, and the S.D. Appropriations Committee in January, 1999.

The Vision, a 22-page document, follows intensive examination of the present CES program and surveying "stakeholders" throughout the state. SDSU leaders also had discussions with other states that had completed reviews of the Extension Services.

South Dakotans surveyed indicated strong support for Extension and the desire to maintain a county presence, but a general recognition of the need to change, plus the wishes to be able to take courses for credit although place bound.

South Dakota Extension professionals helped chart the course of their own change, first with early input, and later by helping write job descriptions, detailing expected outcomes and competencies needed, and selecting areas of emphasis in which to serve. They also suggested training needs, coursework and completed a detailed self-assessment of their own competencies so the training can be designed to meet their needs.

County Educators


Comments in a sport-check with county educators after the conference showed a real optimism for success for The Vision, along with some reservations about some of the natural barriers of geography and distance.

Ed Gray, Salem, a county agent for 28 years, said, "I think the Vision will improve things significantly. At the rate that knowledge has been growing each year, going up exponentially, it is getting impossible for one person to have all the expertise required today in agriculture, youth development and family and consumer sciences. The amount of information out there is phenomenal."

Gray, who holds a master's degree with a minor in economics, now moves into the farm management specialty within his field educational unit. "I'll be able to move away from being a total generalist to concentrate on a more specific area. The specialty areas (of the new CES) are still quite broad, but they allow for some concentration and specialization."

Gray continued, "I think that not only will we be able to secure more expertise in our subject matter area through training and updating, we'll also have closer contact with our peers in that field, and be able to exchange that information and use strengths of our co-workers to benefit our clientele.

"When we have a group of people in an area such as mine, farm management, we can access each other's strengths, because each individual will bring some specialized thoughts and expertise. That will help us as we build on teamwork."

John Kangasm a veteran county educator from Philip with a degree in animal husbandry, said he believes the new plan is "do-able," and county educators and their clientele will both gain from the improved expertise that will come to educators. "I really look forward to the extra training," he said.

Kangas also believes the new communications technology that county Extension offices now have will draw in some new and more progressive clientele, those who will be making more use of e-mail, the Internet, Web sites, and the telephone. But he also doesn't want to lose the traditional clientele and the office drop-ins.

Kangas, also president of the S.D. County Ag Agents Association, said he heard some reservations expressed at an association meeting during conference by some county educators, particularly where communities are farther apart.

Because of the vast distance in his new seven-county field unit � 250 miles from corner to corner, versus 120 in the former cluster � Kangas believes it will be more difficult for him to maintain the face-to-face contact and county identity he long enjoyed as a traditional "county agent." However, the technology communication links can help reduce travel.

He is concerned, as are some in the association, about who will pay for the mileage when an educator travels outside of the county. The proposal is for base counties to pay mileage for their educators with costs balancing out over time.

Kangas also said implementing The Vision will be easier for new educators coming aboard but a big challenge for those with longevity but no advanced degree.

One "new hire," Michelle Schimke from Wessington Springs, joined Extension Dec. 1 as a livestock educator in Tripp County at Winner.

"I came back (from the conference) with a very positive outlook. Coming in new, I'm glad I'm coming in when I am, because with the older agents, I understand there are some turf issues.

"My strong point is livestock. When questions come in on the agronomy side, not my strong point, I'm glad I can rely on Justin Keyser in Gregory and Bob Fanning in Kennebec, the two agronomy people in our field of education unit."

"I'm very positive. We can achieve (the goals in the vision). It will take some time. But with time, I think it will be very rewarding for the clientele with the additional information we'll be able to give them."



ABS College Dean Cholick and Interim Extension Director Tidemann, addressed the conference, outlining the Vision, reporting on hirings and the budget, and answering questions.

Tidemann told educators, "We need to see ourselves as resource/referral teams. If you know the answer, handle the question. If you do not know the answer, refer it to the next level, or the person or agency that can help.

"Telling them 'I can't answer that anymore' will be like signing our death certificate. We need to be more proactive and less reactive.

"As Governor Janklow states, CES needs to spend more time on the important items rather than the urgent items," Tidemann said.

"We all fall into the trap of addressing those urgent requests and sometimes tend to dismiss the important issues."

Cholick said now in the ABS College, the Agricultural Experiment Station, Cooperative Extension Service, Academic Programs, and Analytical Service "all work as one." Cholick said, "we are one, we work together and we need to work smarter."

He continued, "We tackle the issues in a priority process. Identify how we can address them. Then evaluate and do impact assessment."

Cholick said, "In a recent speech the governor indicated that we should find the facts, learn the issues, and show the people how we are impacting them.

"For us in the land-grant universities that means we use public input in defining the issues, research (Agricultural Experiment Station) to develop new unbiased knowledge, teaching (Academic Programs) to develop students in the classrooms, and the Cooperative Extension Service to deliver educational programs across the state."

Cholick closed by telling Extension educators to "spend your time of the things that make a difference in solving people's problems."

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