Fertile Ground for Budget Cuts

Everyone says that North Carolina’s state budget is in crisis. Yet the General Assembly is spending $45 million a year on a program that has strayed from its original mission, is involved in political advocacy (in some cases, to promote its own programs), and devotes millions of dollars to feel-good activities that duplicate programs of both the federal government and the private sector.

That program is the North Carolina Cooperative Extension (NCCE), headquartered at NC State University, which partners with North Carolina A&T State University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and state and county governments. The North Carolina Agricultural Extension, as it was originally called, focused at first on soil improvement, enabling farmers to achieve higher yields on less land.

At one time, the extension programs of the land-grant universities (such as NC State and NC A&T) focused on best practices in farming. Early efforts helped farmers to save cotton crops from boll weevils and to boost wartime food production. The extension service established 4-H clubs for agricultural youth and taught rural families how to grow their own gardens.

In fact, the “farm agent” was a major social innovation, according to the late management guru Peter Drucker. Originally invented by the founder of Sears, Roebuck, & Co., the concept was adopted by the Department of Agriculture in the form of the extension agent. The agent boosted farm productivity because he “put the new agricultural knowledge within farmers’ reach,” said Drucker.

Like the rest of the nation, North Carolina has seen a drastic decline in agriculture. Since 1950 the number of farms in North Carolina has dropped from 301,000 in 1950 to fewer than 60,000.

This decline does not prevent the extension service from obtaining a generous budget, however. This year, Cooperative Extension received $44.5 million from the North Carolina General Assembly’s general fund and $14.9 million in federal land grant appropriations. It also received $609,586 from fees and services provided in the state, to reach a total budget of over $60 million. (The magnitude of NCCE’s financial support was not easy to discover. After sending several unanswered emails to NCCE employees, I finally received the revenue data from the General Assembly and an employee at NCSU—not an NCCE employee.)

Some of the NCCE’s goals look more like advocacy than agriculture. One of NCCE’s aims is for citizens to be “civically engaged within their communities”—which usually means influencing voting behavior towards a particular political outcomes. In one case, NCCE worked with the League of Women Voters—whose policy priorities include climate change and “equitable” health care reform—to teach children about civic engagement. Many other programs promote the faddish idea of mandatory “voluntarism” through in-school “service-learning” projects.

NCCE explicitly mentions its intention to affect political outcomes in order to achieve these goals. Under its objectives for almost every goal, the official website says that the organization will “empower community organizations to build sustainable communities and/or influence public policy.”

Advocacy seems to dominate its environmental agenda, too. It supports the “generation, conservation and use of clean, sustainable, efficient and reliable energy.” Its goals include protecting, conserving, enhancing, and “optimizing” ecosystems. To what extent are these agricultural goals? Agriculture normally changes natural habitats into domesticated ones, so optimizing ecosystems seems to be another sign of mission creep.

One of NCCE’s “green” projects is the “The Low Impact Living” series. The series holds events teaching NC citizens how to “to lessen your footprint on the environment [and] conserve our natural resources…through Low Impact Living.” The series encourages attendees to buy local and “reduce, reuse, recycle.” NCCE likely chose these goals because they are politically correct rather than beneficial to citizens. Most economists doubt the value of the local foods or “locavore” movement.

Moreover, such programs are only tangentially related to agriculture. If the state of North Carolina wants to support “low-impact living” and recycling, a more natural home for the program would be the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, not NCCE. Programs like these deviate from extension’s traditional view of resources, replacing its initial goal of efficiency with one of political correctness.

Many of NCCE’s programs in family and consumer sciences and in youth development are, at best, glorified home economics. At worst, they’re extensions of the growing nanny state—one that wants to determine how we eat, how we act, and how we live. One program, SNAP-Ed, teaches third-graders about FDA’s “current Dietary Guidelines for Americans and MyPyramid.” The program is not directed to children in agriculture but to children receiving food stamps. Cooperative Extension’s “Successful Family” website gives users tips to “Control Clutter and Gain Quality Family Time” and “Dress for Comfort and Movement.” There’s even an “Eat Smart Move More Weigh Less” program that looks a lot like Weight Watchers.

Few of these programs are designed for extension’s traditional audience—rural citizens. Mike Walden, a professor of economics at NCSU, works in the areas of economic outlook and personal finance through cooperative extension with all North Carolina residents, not just rural residents. His role is to “provide education and research-based information to help individuals make more informed decisions.” The financial information that he provides may be valuable, but it appears to have little to do with the agriculture mission.

In fairness, the mission creep and program drift of the extension service go back decades. A timeline on NCCE’s website shows that NCCE introduced home economics and social programs in the 1950s. The 4-H program expanded at that time, too, to include “educational programs involving many new subject areas” and with a new focus on “social issues.” In 1964, 4-H programs began expanding into cities. Later, extension’s focus began to include pollution, home gardening, nutrition, and childcare.

In some respects, this pattern reflects the changes within land-grant universities. NC State economics professor Steve Margolis explains that some agricultural economics departments have become “agricultural and resource” departments or “applied” economics departments. NC State now has an “agricultural and resource economics” department, which addresses far more than just farm policy. According to NCSU’s website, students and faculty in this field will study “the management of agricultural and related businesses, the functioning of agricultural markets, the protection and use of resources, the performance of government policies affecting agricultural and related industries, and the impacts of decisions made by consumers with respect to the purchase of food and fiber products.”

Questions can be raised about whether land-grant schools should continue to dwell so much on agriculture now that the nation’s farm population is under 2 percent. But that issue is beyond the scope of this article. The drift of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension, however, is inescapable, and whether taxpayers should continue to support many of its activities is a question worth asking.

Yes, there is still some agriculture in the extension service. Roderick Rejesus, an NC State professor in agricultural and resource economics, notes that he helps farmers take advantage of the federally subsidized crop insurance program. He says many of his colleagues have a more “crop-based” focus, working in, say, blackberry or cotton production. “They work with county agents on production-related issues for their particular focus crop.”

But from political advocacy to nanny-state family programs, cooperative extension no longer serves its main purpose—to improve agriculture in North Carolina. In short, the North Carolina General Assembly and the federal government are paying NCCE to lobby on behalf of leftist policies, more money for themselves, and more influence for “green” community organizations.