Michigan was on the brink of becoming the first state without an Extension service had its governor decided to completely eliminate funds from Michigan State University (MSU) Extension and the Michigan Agriculture Experiment Station (MAES) late last week.
Fortunately, Governor Jennifer Granholm spared MSU Extension by including funds for the program in the state’s new budget signed last Friday. But there’s a catch with the funds: MSU Extension will be restructured to reflect priorities that support and nurture a “green economy,” and the program still faces potential budget cuts of up to 44 percent one year from now when federal surplus funds deplete.
“Could you imagine Michigan without a 4-H or a Master Gardener program? That’s what we’re looking at,” says Mark Elzinga, president of Elzinga & Hoeksema Greenhouses. “There are so many things Extension does for us. We have the Extension specialists who quantify research for us to find the best use for products. They’re not for one company or one person. They do all the research and come up with new ideas.”
State funding for MSU Extension had dwindled over the last five to 10 years, Elzinga says. If funding dwindles any more–or the program is eliminated–he believes growers may eventually have to reach into their own pockets to keep the program going.
“I think as greenhouse owners, we may have to have to fund something like this ourselves,” Elzinga says. “Maybe instead of guys traveling to [OFA] Short Course, you’re going to have to give money to MSU Extension to keep it functioning.
“I want Michigan growers to know we have a valuable resource out there, we have to support it and it has to be supported by our politicians.”
Greenhouse Grower columnist Will Carlson, an MSU emeritus professor, has similar concerns about MSU Extension.
“[MSU Extension specialists] who have multiple assignments were wondering about their jobs last week,” Carlson says. “We have all these research projects going on, and Extension specialists are one of the major carriers of the information to the growers. We can’t walk away from them.”
Agriculture, behind manufacturing, is Michigan’s second-largest industry. But where’s the support from state government?
“You don’t see people building car factories,” Elzinga says. “We’ve lost all that manufacturing. We have to focus on new productivity in Michigan. We have to focus on new jobs.”
Another concern the industry has about the new budget for MSU Extension is the shift to “green.” Granholm said last week that the services MSU Extension provided have concentrated for almost a century on assisting farmers and the state’s agricultural community. But she envisions MSU Extension transforming into a “21st century organization, one that will broaden its scope and help grow Michigan’s green economy.”
Roberta Osborne, an Extension specialist in Michigan’s Branch County, isn’t entirely sure what the governor means.
“People are asking about this ‘new shape,’” Osborne told The Daily Reporter in Coldwater, Mich. “We’re already pretty green.”
Elzinga & Hoeksema is the classic example of a “green” Michigan greenhouse operation, as it invested in solar-thermal systems, certified organic production and recycling initiatives over the last few years.
“We [invested in "green"] because we thought it was the right thing to do and a new direction to take,” says Elzinga, who’s involved with the Michigan Floriculture Growers Council trying to make growers statewide aware of potential changes.
Another Meister Media Worldwide publication, American Vegetable Grower, posted a story last week about the possible elimination of MSU Extension. The reader comments that appear at the bottom of the story are interesting, and you can check them out at GrowingProduce.com.
For more information on the importance of Extension, read Erik Runkle’s essay “Coming Together” from our December 2008 issue. Runkle is an associate professor and floriculture Extension specialist at MSU, and he shares his vision of Extension’s future in the essay.