Two agencies Oklahomans have counted on for more than a century are downsizing and reorganizing after back-to-back years of unprecedented budget cuts. As a result, agricultural research and the delivery of that knowledge to Oklahomans will be in further jeopardy if state budget reductions continue.
The Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service currently serves each of our state’s 77 counties, but that could soon change. Extension provides research-based knowledge used by Oklahomans, including other government agencies. The food and agriculture industry has a $42 billion annual impact on the state’s economy.
Extension programs contribute to that impact, with benefits for both rural and urban communities. Educators promote stronger families, advance food safety, contribute to wise use of water and land resources, support rural development initiatives, and serve more than 100,000 young people through 4-H programs.
Extension educational programs are based on scientific studies, many conducted by our statewide Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station system, which conducts cutting-edge research under local conditions.
Support for this fundamental land-grant mission comes from federal appropriations through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, state appropriations through the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education and from county governments in support of county Extension offices. Additional support comes from public and private contracts and grants, and gifts to Oklahoma State University.
While state public universities and colleges offset part of the nearly 19 percent cut in state funding the past two fiscal years with tuition increases, it is important to know that Extension and the Experiment Station system do not receive tuition dollars. Each agency absorbed the full effect by reducing expenditures. The result is an overall reduction in services at a time when demand is increasing for research-based information and resources that can help fuel the Oklahoma economy.
To cope, we are reducing faculty positions funded by these two state agencies. Extension also is reducing professional staff assigned to county offices, though we remain committed to maintaining a presence in every county in partnership with county governments. This means fewer research projects in support of state industries and fewer experts to provide guidance on adopting new practices and addressing new challenges. Translation: fewer services delivered at the local level by people who live in those communities.
As state leaders look for ways to balance the state budget with greatly reduced revenues, it is important to recognize the role these state services play in helping people maintain or improve their quality of life, while advancing our state.
In the face of budget cuts, we have worked harder than ever to operate more efficiently and effectively. However, continued cuts to our state funding will erode our ability to deliver on our land-grant mission.
We encourage those who count on our research and Extension programs to tell decision makers that these programs and services are critical to their well-being and the well-being of Oklahoma.
Tom Coon is Oklahoma State University Vice President for Agricultural Programs