September Journal Club Review: University of Wisconsin Extensions, fertilizing communities by building bridges with academia

Journal club was lead by Derrick Grundwald, review written by Marie Fiori

Farmers have long been the backbone of Wisconsin’s economy. Many farmers inherit their land and business from their family. Despite the heritage of family farms, agricultural practices are far from static. Advancements in planting and harvesting crops are made daily in research laboratories across the country. In order to stay  profitable and efficient, farmers require new technology. However, they can’t rely on biased company salespeople for technology alone. Advancements in agricultural science are made in labs at universities, and it is important for farmers to hear about them directly from the scientists who make the discoveries. 

Communicating agricultural breakthroughs with farmers has been an integral part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s mission for centuries. Since UW-Madison was designated as Wisconsin’s land-grant university in 1866, it has been charged to serve the agricultural and technological needs of residents all across the state. In the following decades, the University of Wisconsin system established a series of extension offices to disseminate information to farmers, no matter how far from Madison. 

The UW-Extension system became an autonomous unit within the University of Wisconsin system in 1965. For over five decades, it remained independent and deeply rooted in the communities where it had offices. In 2017, the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents voted to reorganize the entire system as they attempted to lower the costs. As a part of the reorganization, the UW-Extensions were consolidated under the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Some UW-Extension employees felt blindsided by this decision, though it was seen as somewhat of an ‘open secret’ among many lawmakers. In fact, one legislator had previously referred to the Extensions as an “antiquated system” and called for them to be either eliminated or reformed in 2015.

Today, there is a UW-Extension office in every county in Wisconsin. Much of their work includes providing farmers with information about new products and techniques, and helping farmers when they have a problem. Extension employees live in the community that they serve, giving them deep knowledge about the needs of local farmers. Additionally, several faculty members within the University of Wisconsin System  have appointments in the UW-Extension. They are paid to participate in extensions across the state, teaching best farming practices and learning from farmers’ everyday problems.

In addition to boots on the ground, UW-Extensions also facilitate the technology transfer from university lab to private companies.  This disseminates the newest technologies, helps researchers patent their discoveries, provides revenue for the state’s universities, lowers production costs, and ultimately lowers consumer prices for the technology.

Besides agriculture, UW-Extensions provide a range of personal and community development resources for the counties they serve. These resources include financial education classes, fitness classes, information about mental health, opportunities for outdoor education, and more. These skills allow farmers to support their families and to participate in an increasingly national and  global economy.

It is crucial for UW-Extensions to stay in communities across the state of Wisconsin so community needs are heard. To keep the Extensions strong, they must be fully funded and supported. UW-Madison faculty can advance this cause by actively participating in their Extension appointments and having face-to-face contact with farmers. Researchers not traditionally thought of as doing ‘agricultural’ research can also contribute to strengthening the Extension by volunteering.