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UC Extension System Facing a Dry Spell

The new state budget will slash funding by 25%. But officials have yet to decide which of the farm programs will be scaled back.

August 03, 2003|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

Among the floppy-eared rabbits and frisky dairy goats at the Ventura County Fair, the state budget has cast a long shadow over one of agriculture's sacred symbols: California 4-H.

The youth development program and others run by University of California Cooperative Extension could be among those hit by the spending plan that Gov. Gray Davis signed Saturday.

The University of California Cooperative Extension system, established in 1914 to protect and promote California agriculture and natural resources, lost a quarter of its funding this fiscal year. For the second year in a row, the budget package also contains a related 10% cut to UC agricultural research.

While specific programs have not yet been identified for downsizing or elimination, Cooperative Extension officials say the rollback could result in layoffs, force closure of research facilities and field offices, and hurt the state's ability to respond to a range of potential problems, from bioterrorism threats to infestations by pests such as the glassy-winged sharpshooter, which has wreaked havoc on the state's wine industry.

The cuts also could slice deeply into Cooperative Extension educational programs such as 4-H, which is holding its annual showcase of cattle, swine and other livestock at the county fair in Ventura.

"It would be a mistake to cut this program because I've seen what it does for kids," said Ventura County 4-H coordinator Jennifer McGuire, whose part-time job could be among those on the chopping block.

More than 1,000 advisors, specialists and research scientists work out of offices in nearly every California county.

They advise growers on the newest methods for battling pests and disease, conduct research on crop productivity and growing practices and explore creation of niche markets to help keep growers competitive.

The extension offices also have specialists and advisors around the state dedicated to working with farmers, ranchers and others to improve surveillance on agricultural properties and guard against sabotage or the introduction of disease into the food chain.

Studies show that nearly half of the economic growth in California agriculture over the last 50 years is directly attributable to UC research and Cooperative Extension efforts, said W.R. Gomes, vice president of the UC's Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Budget cuts in the early '90s had already slowed those efforts, and the recent round could deal a crippling blow to programs, Cooperative Extension officials say. The Cooperative Extension system will have to take a $12.2-million reduction from last year's $48.6-million budget.

In the long run, officials say, they fear the cutbacks could do irreparable harm to California's annual $30-billion farm economy, as the flood of UC-inspired innovations and technological advancements slows to a trickle.

"We have been an integral part not only of helping farmers stay in business but in making California agriculture far and away the best in the world," Gomes said. "We are no longer trimming. We will be, in fact, terminating entire programs."

UC committees are in the process of identifying areas to cut.

In Imperial County, acting Cooperative Extension Director Eric Natwick said that in the last decade, the office near the desert town of Holtville has gone from 13 advisors to eight.

"How thin can you spread people and still expect them to do an effective job?" said Natwick, who has been with the office 22 years. Natwick said positions lost include a small-farm advisor, agronomists and a weed scientist.

The loss of the county's weed expert means no one is in place to assess new weed problems, recognize the introduction of new species or educate growers on the newest weed science.

The effect may not be immediate, Natwick said, but crop production could be hurt in the long run.

Layoffs appear inevitable, Gomes said, because about 90% of the state dollars that go to agriculture and natural resources fund salaries and benefits for UC employees. Extension offices operate on a combination of state, federal and local funds.

Fortunately, the state cuts come at a time when many offices are experiencing budget increases from other sources.

Larry Clement, who oversees Cooperative Extension offices in Yolo and Solano counties, said his programs received double-digit budget increases this year from elected leaders in those rural counties.

"They know what we do and are supporting us like crazy," said Clement, a 33-year employee. "I don't think we've done a good enough job [telling state leaders] about the services we provide."

In Ventura County, Cooperative Extension officials have been emphasizing their successes and point up the importance of UC programs to farming and communities.

They have devised technologies to boost crop production, improve fertilization practices and extend the shelf life of products on their way to market.

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