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Extension selects Moorhead for office

ST. PAUL -- Moorhead will be one of 18 Minnesota communities to host a regional office of the streamlined University of Minnesota Extension Service. Two other northwestern Minnesota communities -- Fergus Falls and Crookston -- also will be home t...

ST. PAUL -- Moorhead will be one of 18 Minnesota communities to host a regional office of the streamlined University of Minnesota Extension Service.

Two other northwestern Minnesota communities -- Fergus Falls and Crookston -- also will be home to offices, selected from more than 100 cities that wanted them.

Extension Service Dean Charles Casey made the announcement Monday, two months after telling employees the service would cut back from the traditional practice of keeping an office in each of the 87 counties. He said static federal funding and declining state and county funding means the service cannot do everything it once did.

On Monday, Casey said each regional office -- including two in Twin Cities' suburbs -- will have five to 10 employees to serve surrounding counties. But many decisions remain to be made, he said.

Even with open questions, Moorhead and Clay County officials were thrilled with the news.


"It's great news as far as economic development for us," Clay County Commission Chairman Jon Evert said. "New jobs for the community."

Added Moorhead City Council member Lauri Winterfeldt-Shanks: "Any time you can add a well-compensated professional position to your community, it certainly is significant."

While the extension service's reputation is to help farmers, city residents also benefit, Winterfeldt-Shanks said. For instance, in her job with Moorhead schools, she uses extension educators to teach gardening and family development programs.

"It is a well-kept secret," said Winterfeldt-Shanks, a member of the Clay County Extension Service Council.

Evert said Clay County probably will continue spending nearly $200,000 annually on extension programs under the new arrangement. The money will go toward 4-H programs and hiring an agriculture educator to help area farmers.

"We haven't had strong agriculture support for over a year," Evert said of when the extension service was in a time of retrenchment.

Farm country lawmakers were not as happy with Monday's announcement.

"This is a signal by the university of their lack of commitment to greater Minnesota and their lack of commitment to the objective of the extension service as a whole," Rep. Al Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, said.


Juhnke, ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Finance Committee, said the current extension program is successful and should not be so severely cut.

Sen. Steve Murphy, chairman of the Senate agriculture committee, said the new plan would not serve the public well.

"This is kind of a sharp stick in my eye," the Red Wing Democrat said, adding that he has worked to get the university agriculture-related money.

Struggling farmers need advice that extension educators provide, he said.

Casey said more than half of the extension service's money still will go to agriculture. Sixteen of the 18 regional offices are in rural areas.

Nearly 100 extension-related people work in the university's agriculture and veterinary medicine colleges, Casey said.

University facilities in Crookston and Morris are among those that will host regional offices, Casey said, because the university already has a presence there.

One of the regional concept's advantages, Casey said, is that counties will have more flexibility.


Now, county, state and federal money is mixed together enough that counties sometimes have little say in how their funds are spent. Under the new system, a county does not have to spend anything on the extension service.

However, almost every county is expected to fund a 4-H educator.

"They have told us if they could only fund one thing, it would be 4-H educators," he said.

Casey said 40 to 50 counties probably will fund more than just a 4-H educator. The most popular area is agriculture education, he said.

Overall, Casey said that he expects the 200 educators now on the payroll to drop to 150 to 160 by the time the regional offices take over in January.

Employees soon will receive a survey asking what specialty and geographic area they prefer. Some will accept an early retirement plan and county-funded positions will be available to other workers, so Casey did not know how many people would lose their jobs in the realignment.

"It is a very uncertain time for them, we understand that," Casey said. "But we also understand this is a very different financial situation than before."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Don Davis at (651) 290-0707

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