When several trees on his father’s walnut orchard died unexpectedly, Daniel Garcia decided he didn’t want to just replace them and hope for the best.
Looking for an objective opinion and a scientific explanation, he reached out to Katherine Pope, the new University of California Cooperative Extension orchard systems farm advisor in Yolo County. She had been on the job for a little more than a month when she got the call from Garcia, who farms in neighboring Solano County.
As a new farmer still learning the ropes, Garcia said the work that farmers and farm advisors do together is not only important to the success of his family’s operation, but having Pope come out to the farm to diagnose problems has been “super beneficial.”
“I don’t want to have to deal with somebody over the phone, because I’m not good at explaining what’s going on,” he said.
In addition to research, farm visits have been a core tradition of cooperative Extension services. But with budget cuts, waves of retiring farm advisors each year and the remaining ones having to take on more workload, there’s concern that the institution may be losing years of knowledge and expertise, and may not be able to offer the level of education and outreach on which the farming community has come to depend.
With 68 new Extension advisors and specialists since 2010 — and other new hirings in the queue or being planned — UC leaders say they have started to rebuild the cooperative Extension, reversing a downward trend in the number of advisors and specialists. In addition to the 68 new hires, there are currently 10 advisors and 13 specialists under recruitment.
“We’re at a really good time at UC,” said Pope, who became an advisor last spring. “There are a lot of people retiring, positions that went unfilled because of resource and financial limitations, but those are finally getting backfilled now and we’re hiring more people than are retiring.”
Barbara Allen-Diaz, vice president of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources, noted that 2013 was the first time in recent years that UC hired more cooperative Extension faculty than had retired. In December, she approved hiring another 29 advisors and 16 specialists for the 2015-16 cycle, out of 123 position proposals last year.
“So we turned the corner for the first time in this long downward spiral,” she said. “My goal is to continue to rebuild the footprint of cooperative Extension.”
But there has been no new money for hiring, she said, so she’s had to use the salaries of those who’ve retired to hire new people, noting that an average of 13 to 17 advisors and specialists retire each year, some of whom have been with the university for 30-plus years.
More mature advisors are also harder to afford, said Jim Sullins, UCCE county director in Tulare and Kings counties, himself a 32-year veteran on the verge of retirement—so retirements create salary savings that could go to hire new advisors with money left over.
As of 2014, the starting annual salary of a UC assistant advisor at the lowest level is $49,100; it’s $61,000 for an associate advisor; and $72,500 for an advisor.
Chris Greer, UCCE vice provost, said the goal is to get advisor numbers “back up to a sustainable level,” noting he expects to end this year with a net gain.
“It’s not huge leaps and bounds; it’s a small gain, but we’re hoping as we continue this process of filling these positions, that we’ll start gaining some ground,” he said.
To help prioritize which positions should be hired first, UC sought public input, receiving more than 900 individual comments last year, including from agricultural organizations. Allen-Diaz described this process, which she implemented five years ago, as “critically important” in determining on what areas and issues the cooperative Extension should focus its services.
When people retire, “it’s an opportunity to evaluate what our needs are,” Sullins said.
Rather than automatically refilling vacant positions, Greer said much thought is put into revamping job descriptions or creating new positions to better fit the evolving needs of the agricultural business. For example, one such position that has been approved for hiring is an agronomic cropping systems/nutrient management advisor who will serve Kings, Tulare and Fresno counties. Whereas an agronomist might have sufficed in the past, Greer said farmers now face more regulatory requirements to manage nitrogen and groundwater quality, necessitating an advisor with expertise in nutrient management.
Being able to find applicants with the training, practical experience and depth that UCCE requires does make the searches more difficult, Sullins said, adding it’s not unusual for a search to stretch 90 to 120 days, sometimes multiple times. He noted he’s now on his third recruitment for a 4-H advisor for Kings, Tulare and Fresno counties, and he had a viticulture position that was open for five years before it was filled last year.
Because some positions stay vacant for a long time, Sullins acknowledged “there are times we are not able to deliver the programs.” With advisors having to cover multiple counties and travel longer distances, sometimes they may not be able to make as many farm visits as they would like, but he noted they are also making more use of email, social media and other Web technology to stay connected to farmers and to dispense information.
Being a new advisor, Pope said going out to the farm gives her a fuller picture of what she’s dealing with that she can’t get over the phone or with photos via email. Sometimes she may notice other issues unrelated to the original problem, or the visit may prompt other questions from the farmer.
“My job is to spread information and knowledge, and doing that in person is absolutely the best way to do that,” she said.
With some advisors pulling double duty as county directors, administrative work often cuts into time they could spend in the field or doing research. For this reason, Scott Oneto, a farm advisor and county director of UC Central Sierra Cooperative Extension, which covers El Dorado, Tuolumne, Calaveras and Amador counties, said he submitted a request to recruit an animal science and livestock advisor.
Beef cattle is a top commodity in his four-county region, he noted, and while he currently acts as the livestock and rangeland advisor, he said he hasn’t been able to “give it the time it deserves in terms of developing a strong scientific and local program.”
“I think having a dedicated academic in that area full time would be a lot more beneficial to our producers,” he said, but noted that position has yet to be approved.