Budget writers have targeted the University System of New Hampshire over the past two years. As a result the UNH Cooperative Extension has taken it on the chin.
Budget cuts have made administrators scale back their continuing education programs; reductions have forced the Cooperative Extension to get creative.
Seth Wilner is teaching a class on whole-farm planning to a crowd of about thirty farmers in Boscawen.
It looks pretty much how you’d expect a farming class to look: students range from twenty-somethings to sixty-somethings, most everyone is wearing faded Carhartts or Dickies … except for one thing.
"… Steve… are you raising your hand…" Wilner says, waiting awkwardly. "Uh yeah" Steve responds after a moment
That funny pause? Steve Holt isn’t actually in the room; his image is up on a huge flat screen TV, being broadcast from an office in Newport.
This is just one way that the Cooperative Extension is learning how to play the cards that the budget dealt them: they can’t afford to offer classes all over the state anymore. So they use telecommuting to preserve their reach.
Teacher Seth Wilner has been a country educator for the extension for twelve years. He says things are really different since their budget got cut.
"It used to be that if anyone in my county called me up and said I need help with four apple trees, I have two llamas and a goat, can you come over and look at my pastures. I would be able to help them," Wilner says.
Last year lawmakers chopped nearly half of the state’s share of funding to the university system. Much of that was made up through lay-offs and benefit cuts. The cooperative extension lost twenty-seven employees, seventeen percent of their staff.
Wilner says there’s no doubt the cuts have had an impact.
"So if you have four apple trees we’ll kind of direct you to a group pruning workshop that we have to offer, maybe to the web, maybe to fact sheets," he says, "We just can’t offer all the services"
This comes at a bad time. Teachers say the local food and organic farming movements have ginned up interest in lots of the Cooperative Extension classes recently.Wilner tells me about his typically quiet tree pruning course.
"I’ve been offering pruning workshops in Sullivan county for twelve years, so how big of an audience can it be now, right?" Wilner tells me, "So March sixth, seventy-eight people came to the first one! Alright you figure the second one’s gonna have fifteen. One hundred and ten came last Saturday! See you get 190 people coming to two pruning workshops!"
A testament to the growing interest is that not everyone who comes to agricultural classes looks like a stereotypical New Hampshire hay-seed. James Kelley sports tattoos all up and down the gigantic arms that stick out of his black, sleeveless shirt. He and his wife Kelly are looking to start a farm, and they say they don’t really know how.
I asked them where they would go for farming information, if not to the cooperative extension. "I’d probably Google it," James Clark responds.
Despite the challenge of having to find fat to trim, most people at the extension are looking forward, not back.
Lisa Townson is Assistant Director, and she says the budget was a catalyst that got changes started.
She says, "it was time for us to take a fresh look at things. These were things that we really needed to do anyway."
Townson says these are changes that are going to keep the extension accessible and relevant, in this new stripped down era.