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August 5, 2013

The Future of Farm Extension

Dr. Cliff Ohmart
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A couple of months ago I found out that Steve Vasquez, the University of California Cooperative Extension viticulture farm advisor for Fresno County, was resigning from his position to take a job in the private sector. This news made me surprised and concerned: I was surprised because Fresno County, with its 200,000 acres of vineyards, is a vital part of the wine and table grape communities, and it seems like a great place to be for someone who wants to work in viticulture. I was concerned because the UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) has been through severe budget cuts during the past 10 years, so it has been challenging to replace farm advisors who retire or leave their positions.

Vasquez has gained great respect in the wine and table grape communities for the work and service he provided for many years. His departure seems like a good time to take a look at the staffing of UCCE viticulture, contemplate its future and also look at the changing world of grower outreach and education.

How many grape advisors?
It is important to note that, relative to other crops in California, the number of UCCE farm advisors working with grapes as their core area is high. The North Coast region has four farm advisors specializing in wine grapes, with one each in Napa and Sonoma counties, a shared farm advisor between Lake and Mendocino counties and a UC IPM area advisor stationed in Sonoma County. The Central Coast region has two viticulture farm advisors, and the Central Valley region had two, before Vasquez’ departure. There are also two farm advisors in the Central Valley with multiple crop responsibilities, grapes being one. Furthermore, UC is currently recruiting a viticulture farm advisor for Tulare, Kings and Kern counties to replace an advisor who retired a couple of years ago. That makes a total of 10 viticulture farm advisors if you count the new recruitment but not the position recently vacated by Vasquez.

Now, let’s dive into the details a bit, looking at recent trends and demographics of existing UC farm advisors. By my estimation, there are currently about 180 farm advisors and about 115 specialists (a classification that involves much more research than a farm advisor). However, UCCE lost 86 farm advisors and specialists between 2009 and 2012, a 22% loss, according to a Dec. 12, 2012, statement from the UC Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Thankfully, due to budget stabilization, UC is planning to hire more than 25 advisors and specialists during the next two years, according to a March 12 announcement from the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. If no retirements occur during this period, that will create a 7% increase in the number of farm advisors and specialists. Before the improved budget, replacement of viticulture advisor positions had been mixed. A viticulture farm advisor from Madera County (home to 74,000 acres of grapes) who retired several years ago has not been replaced, whereas the advisor position that became vacant in Napa County due to the untimely death of Ed Weber was filled pretty quickly. Another worrisome statistic is that 60% of the current UC farm advisors are over the age of 54, and more than 60% of extension specialists are in this same age bracket. As these advisors and specialists retire during the next 10 years, barely half of these positions will be filled at the current replacement rate.

Historically, one of the most important roles played by viticulture farm advisors has been outreach and education to the grower community. The transfer of information and technology results from research conducted by the farm advisors themselves or the university’s academic faculty. Given what appears to be a decline in the number of advisors in the future, I am very concerned about their ability to continue being effective in this role. This is no criticism of the hard-working and talented people currently in viticulture advisor positions—or future advisors—but an observation about the workload they currently have and the increased workload that is likely in the future.

There are currently about 730,000 acres of vineyards in California and more than 7,000 raisin and wine grape growers. To make the math simple, let’s assume there are 10 viticulture advisors, even though there will be fewer than that in the future. That averages out to 73,000 acres and 700 growers to be served by each advisor. However, the distribution of vineyards and grapegrowers is not even throughout the state. I have already mentioned there are more than 200,000 acres of vineyards in Fresno County and 3,000 raisin growers, and until now that area has been serviced by one advisor (and, as of April of this year, zero advisors). With the pace of communication rapidly increasing due to cell phones and email, it is simply not possible for an advisor to keep up with grower inquiries, let alone offer outreach and education.

A heavy workload can feel lighter if there is adequate compensation for it. However, another concern is whether UCCE farm advisor salaries are attractive enough to appeal to the best talent available. As of 2011, the starting salary for a UC farm advisor at the lowest level, assistant advisor step 1, is $46,800. The salary scale indicates there are two years per step within this classification. There are six steps within the assistant advisor level, so in 12 years the advisor will be making $61,100. According to Wine Business Monthly’s 2012 salary survey, the average salary for a vineyard manager in the Napa/Sonoma region is $90,000. The average salary of a tasting room manager in Napa/Sonoma is $57,000. The second salary level classification for UC farm advisors is associate advisor. Presumably an applicant with a higher degree (e.g. master’s or Ph.D.) and/or significant experience could start at this level. Starting salary for associate advisor step 1 is $58,000. I am not aware of salaries of equivalent cooperative extension positions in other states, but in talking with a colleague from New York, it appears that their pay scale is significantly higher.

I realize that the attraction of a job is not only about the salary. The benefits for a UC farm advisor position are excellent, and the pension system (if an employee stays in the system long enough) is also very good. Nevertheless, the high cost of living in some wine regions of California, such as Napa, makes it nearly impossible to afford to buy a house on a lower level farm advisor salary.

The work expectations for a Cooperative Extension farm advisor appear to be changing—not only in California, but in states like New York, which has the second-largest grape acreage after California. With budgets tight, monetary support for farm advisor positions is declining. As a result, there is an expectation that grant money be pursued. In some regions of New York, part of an advisor’s salary comes from grant money. In California, the trend appears to be an increasing emphasis on farm advisors doing research. With the high workload I have described for a farm advisor, if grant writing and research is becoming a larger part of their job expectations, it is clear that contact with growers will decline. There are only so many hours in a day.

Texas scrambles, too
In communicating with colleagues in other states, the situation for cooperative extension advisors is a mixed bag. In some states, cooperative extension is doing OK, but in others that is not the case. In Texas, for example, some advisor positions were supported by state grant money that has been discontinued, so there is a scramble to find other funds to support these positions. The cooperative extension advisor system in New York appears to be doing as well as ever in terms of the work being done. However, as mentioned above, many positions are not fully supported by the state, and grant money must be obtained to provide a portion of the salary money as well as support for work.

Grant funding is an important source of funding, but as one would expect, a grant must be focused on the goals for the grant program, which may or may not be the goals of the farm advisor or the grape industry they serve. Moreover, most grants now are outcome-based. I am all for measuring outcomes of projects, but it is challenging to measure the outcomes of outreach and extension.

Overall, I have painted a negative picture of the future of cooperative extension, particularly in California. I cannot offer any solutions to this problem. Change is inevitable for all sorts of reasons, and it appears state and federal governments are not willing to support systems like Cooperative Extension to the level they have in the past. I believe the cooperative extension system has played a major role in making U.S. agriculture what it is today. I think it is critical that we ensure the system survives. I have seen similar systems in countries like Australia and New Zealand become privatized, and the change to a privately supported system has not resulted in improved outreach and extension; in fact, quite the opposite has occurred.

It is crucial that cooperative extension advisors continue to emphasize farm visits and advising growers on practical farming. One of the great aspects of the system has been that advisors have spent so much time visiting area farms that they have experienced just about every problem that exists, making them valuable resources for growers encountering these problems for the first time.

In conclusion, I think we need to do everything we can to ensure the cooperative extension system survives, but I realize that it will be much reduced in size. We are going to have to figure out how to make the new cooperative extension work for us. I think public/private partnerships are one approach that will work. The California Table Grape Commission has generously pledged $840,000 to support the viticulture farm advisor position for Tulare, Kings and Kern counties. Trade associations and grower groups that organize meetings featuring UC farm advisors as speakers can be helpful by saving the advisor valuable time disseminating information. Other solutions include the multi-state teams of cooperative extension personnel partnering on grants, like the current Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) grant being led by Tim Martinson in New York. I am sure there are other promising ways of partnering with cooperative extension to ensure that its evolution benefits U.S. agriculture. 

Dr. Cliff Ohmart serves as vice president of professional services for SureHarvest. He is the author of “View from the Vineyard: A practical guide to sustainable winegrape growing,” published by the Wine Appreciation Guild. Previously he served as research/IPM director at the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission.