I attended the 2012 Public Issues Leadership Development (PILD) Conference in Alexandria, Virginia mid-April. It was my first time at that particular conference, and it was a great experience. The final day of the three-day conference was dedicated to congressional and agency visits by state delegations. The first two days comprised presentations and meetings in the hotel, with three speakers in general session Monday morning. Their messages were enlightening and engaging.

Budget. Dr. Ralph Otto, USDA-NIFA Deputy Director for Food and Community Resources, reminded us that the formula funds to the land grant universities provides them with an incentive to continue extension. It is the glue that holds us together and can be leveraged to multiply impact. As a perspective on current financial struggles, Ralph gave a bit of economic history, noting that the federal deficit as a percent of the GDP has been much higher than it’s current level. That being said, National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA) 2013 budget proposal is slightly smaller than the 2012 budget. He followed the “elephant in the room” by highlighting three programs — Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN), eXtension, and Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP). He wrapped up his talk by reminding us that  US agriculture trade export is approximately $42.5 billion — a significant contribution to the economy.

Investment. Dr. Doug Steele, Extension Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP) Chair and Montana State University Extension Director, urged us to be challenged by the opportunities before us, rather than depressed by budget deficits. He also reminded us that Extension is an investment–not an expense.  ECOP established four core themes to help Extension shape the future. They are:

  • Build partnerships and acquire resources
  • Increase strategic marketing and communications
  • enhance leadership and professional development
  • strengthen organizational functioning

Position. Dr. Marshall Stewart, North Carolina State University Extension Associate Director, followed up with strong comments about telling the Cooperative Extension System story to stakeholders. The key is to develop a message that can become “kitchen table conversation” — describe what we do in non-divisive ways that are relevant to specific audiences. Marshall emphasized that we need to sit at the center of critical issues, telling our stories so that stakeholders remember we can address those issues.  The most important issues today are the economy, education and health. Regardless of who you talk to–from congressional delegations to local volunteers–you are the brand.

What’s the takeaway for us when budgets are tight; a fraction of Extension educators and specialists across the country are involved in disaster education; and no one likes to talk about disaster until one hits home?  Let’s be like our three speakers–unafraid to take on a challenge, alert to issues and always ready to recruit, educate and inform.

What are you doing to be like Ralph, Doug and Marshall?