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Richard Halopka, left, a crops and soils agent at UW Extension in Clark County, meets with farmers Scott and Heidi Magnuson of rural Neillsville following heavy spring rains in 2013.

The venerable county agriculture agent has been the best friend of Wisconsin farmers for more than 100 years, but steep budget cuts have reduced their numbers in a key ag-rich part of the state at a time when their knowledge and unbiased advice are in high demand.

Grant, Green and Lafayette counties — three of the state’s top corn- and soybean-producing counties — have started the year without full-time ag agents even though the counties have paid the fees required for them by the UW-Extension, according to Rep. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville.

Around the state, the service is operating with 15 fewer ag agents than in 2017, according to UW-Extension data.

While the Extension is in the process of hiring an ag agent for Grant and five other counties, officials in Green and Lafayette counties have been told there is no money to hire more agents for their offices this year, Novak said.

Two other area counties — Sauk and Crawford — are also among the 23 state counties that don’t have ag agents, according to UW-Extension data. Four counties share an agent with another county, and three counties are served by just one agent.

Karl Martin, the dean and director of the Extension’s cooperative division, said the reduction in ag agents is a function of working within a budget that was cut by $3.6 million two years ago as part of the 2015-17 UW System budget, which was reduced $250 million. “Until I can figure out ways to generate new revenue, we just have to make some of these difficult decisions,” he said.

But Novak called the decision to bypass Green and Lafayette for full-time agents “absurd.”

“They are two of the most ag-dependent counties in the state,” he said. “They should be a priority.”

Farmers and farm advocates say the cuts couldn’t come at a worse time. Many farmers are already stressed by continued low grain and dairy prices and a cold, snowy spring that is threatening to delay the planting season.

“I think we’re starting to see some of the long-term effects of those budget cuts,” said Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville. “So it’s all kind of coming together in a worst-case scenario right now.”

A conduit for research

Besides listening and offering free advice to farmers, county agents connect research at UW-Madison with farmers. They troubleshoot problems and educate via workshops, clinics, seminars, consultations and training sessions.

“We’re the boots on the ground, the main part of what’s known as the ‘Wisconsin Idea,’” said George Koepp, the ag agent for Columbia County and president-elect of the Wisconsin Association of County Agricultural Agents, referring to the tradition of extending the influence of the university beyond the classroom to the four corners of the state.

“A lot of great research is being done at the University of Wisconsin that can be used to help farmers, but you’ve got to have a good conduit to get it out to them,” Koepp said. “That’s what the county agent is. We get the research out to the people of Wisconsin.”

Former Green County ag agent Mark Mayer, who retired at the end of last year, typified the kind of work the Extension does. Last year, he conducted about 15 workshops, clinics, seminars and training sessions on a variety of environmental issues like manure storage, farm safety, soils/crops and financial issues that drew over 500 farmers.

But Mayer, like many county agents, also headed programs that affected more than farmers. Mayer’s duties included:

  • Heading the only free agriculture plastic recycling program in the country, which offered free pickup to more than 4,500 farms in four states.
  • Securing grant money for the Extension to pay for a permanent hazardous materials collection program, which allowed 220 farmers and homeowners to safely dispose of 8,380 pounds of hazardous materials last year.
  • Serving as the adviser to the Green County Dairy Youth Recognition Auction and the Meat Animal Sale, which collected $15,750 and $253,698 respectively in 2017. The money was distributed to county and area children and used to fund scholarships.

Volunteers and others are expected to take over the recycling and hazardous materials collection programs, according to Ken Hodgson, a supervisor on the Green County Board. But while one training session for farmers was conducted this year by UW Extension’s Iowa County ag agent Gene Schriefer, nobody from the county or the Extension can say whether there will be more this year.

‘They made a deal’

Hodgson said the county could deal with the lack of seminars if it knew an agent was coming on board sometime this year. But it has no idea if and when Mayer’s replacement is going to show up.

An Extension administrator told the board late last year that a full-time agent would be hired around May 1, Hodgson said. So the Board approved paying the Extension’s fee (about $23,000 for seven months) as part of the county’s 2018 budget. Then, an Extension administrator told the board in March that the job would be posted “very soon,” Hodgson said.

Shortly after that, Extension administrators told board members they were delaying posting the job and, later, that it wouldn’t be posted at all, Hodgson said. Most recently, board members were told that one of Dane County’s two ag agents may be ordered to spend time in Green County.

None of that sits well with Novak, Ringhand, Hodgson or Green County Board chairman Art Carter.

“I think it’s pretty much straightforward,” Carter said. “They made a deal with us, and they’re not following through. We did it in good faith and they supposedly did too, but they aren’t fulfilling the commitment they made to us.”

It’s a similar situation in Lafayette County. When Grant County had two ag agents, they were able to serve Lafayette County’s farmers so the county felt no need to ask for one of its own, Lafayette County Board chairman Jack Sauer said. “It was a great working relationship. We had no problems with it,” said Sauer, who is a farmer.

But after Mayer and Grant County’s agents left last year, officials from Green, Grant and Lafayette counties proposed to the Extension that it hire a full-time agent for each county but in different specialties, enabling them to more effectively split their time in all three counties. Anticipating the proposal would be approved, the Lafayette County Board budgeted money to pay the Extension’s fee for a full-time agent this year. But the Extension hasn’t moved toward filling the position.

While Grant County is getting a new ag agent, Sauer worries that person won’t be free to also serve Lafayette County.

Economy tied to farming

Martin doesn’t disagree that Green and Lafayette counties deserve full-time ag agents, but he offered little indication they’ll get one. He also said the Extension will refund the money the counties paid for full-time agents.

Green County likely will have to share an agent with another county, Martin said, noting key positions remain open in other Extension offices, which requires creativity to meet the highest-priority needs.

Besides funding agricultural programs, the Extension also helps co-fund educators in family living programs, youth programs like 4-H, and community, natural resources and economic development programs.

“We’ve been doing a lot of analysis of not only this situation but all the issues across the state to really identify how we allocate limited resources,” Martin said.

Sauer said the Extension needs to do a better job assessing need.

“We have to look at all the counties and see who has what,” he said. “I think the counties who need the agents should be prioritized over the counties who are already fully staffed (in other areas). So far, nobody has done that for us.”

Data provided to Novak’s office by Martin show the Extension budgeted $1.7 million in salaries for ag agents in fiscal 2018, down from $2.2 million allocated in fiscal 2017. This year, the service counts 56 full-time and part-time ag agents, compared to 71 in 2017.

While some counties have been waiting much longer than Green or Lafayette for an ag agent, none produce close to the amount of corn, soybeans and milk that’s produced in those two counties, according to data from the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Agriculture provides 58 percent of the jobs in Lafayette County and 32 percent of the jobs in Green County. It pumps $2 billion into the Green County economy and $1.3 billion into the Lafayette County economy.

“As important as ag and ag-related industries are to our counties, we should have an ag agent,” said Green County Board supervisor Jerry Guth. “We have a lot of needs, a lot of production and a lot of our economy is tied to it.”

Officials in both counties aren’t opposed to sharing but said they want to have a say in choosing a partner.

Sharing an agent with Dane County, for instance, could be problematic because Dane County’s farms tend to be larger and more demanding than the smaller family farms in Green County, Carter said.

He said most would prefer to share an agent with Lafayette County because the farms in the two counties are similar. “So far, none of the higher-ups in the Extension has asked for our opinions,” Carter said.

Added Sauer: “This is about as bad as I’ve seen it for farmers. These are times when a farmer really needs an ag agent.”

“As important as ag and ag-related industries are to our counties, we should have an ag agent. We have a lot of needs, a lot of production and a lot of our economy is tied to it.” Green County Board supervisor Jerry Guth

Rob Schultz has won multiple writing awards at the state and national levels and covers an array of topics for the Wisconsin State Journal in south-central and southwestern Wisconsin.