Md. Extension in critical stage (Editorial)

(April 21, 2015) Concurrent with and perhaps resulting from the current and ongoing search by the University of Maryland for a new dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, there has bubbled up in the farm community a growing disappointment and discontent with the performance of the Extension service.
Doubts linger in the industry that the college’s administration under outgoing dean Dr. Cheng-i Wei neither understood nor fully appreciated production agriculture and the long-ago congressional mandate that farms, farmers and farm families were to be Extension’s prime concern. Extension gets its money from three sources: The federal, state and county governments.
Of course, federal and state budget cutbacks have steadily impacted the agency.
But Maryland Extension staffers note that a wilting of Extension personnel or performance is not evident in neighboring states — Delaware and Virginia can still flex Extension muscle — and contend that Extension administration in Maryland has lost its focus.
In response to budget cutbacks, Maryland Extension, from top to bottom, has been undergoing a restructuring. Playing a major role in how that works out, new hires — to replace retirements and resignations — have been few and far between.
Concerned Extension staffers and Farm Bureau observers claim that the restructuring has left the agency top-heavy.
For example, where there once were ag agents in all 23 counties only eight remain.
At the same time, the university has hired eight “area Extension directors” who serve groups of two or three counties.
Extension specialists who retire or who transfer to other universities are not being replaced on the payroll and some specialists, after retirement, are continuing research projects under contracts with the university.
So troublesome has the situation become that the Maryland Farm Bureau has formed a workgroup to explore the direction and focus of both Maryland Extension and the university’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Said Farm Bureau in a social media posting: “MFB’s Board pf Directors believes it is critical to the future well-being of our land grant institution and the livelihoods of farmers in Maryland that strategic advice be crafted and offered to current and incoming leadership teams in Collge Park.”
That these long-harbored concerns emerging even as a university search committee is interviewing three finalists for the job of dean of the ag college is most fortunate. They could play a key role in the final selection.