Another busy week with many overlapping conversations focused on opportunities for UC ANR. When I met with Dr. Carrie Castille a week or so ago, her comments focused on the need for responsive outreach around the Biden priority topics of climate change, economic recovery following the pandemic, and a need to increase the diversity and inclusiveness of the land grant system. These are all priorities for the Cooperative Extension System this year and for the next couple of years. In addition, issues associated with the urban-rural interface, including infrastructure and workforce development, are areas of emphasis and where, I think, there is tremendous opportunity to demonstrate the Cooperative Extension value to more decision makers. We've been in this space for a long time, but we may not have communicated our impact story using language that resonates.
During a conversation with other CE directors from the West, I learned that Idaho talks about 4-H as ‘students first class at the University of Idaho'. I wonder how that would be received by the UC Academic Senate. No harm in trying it out. Colorado State University is working to ensure systemwide branding so that when a user visits the Durango County Cooperative Extension website, they recognize immediately that they are on a ‘ram' site (the CSU mascot). The goal is to lift the profile of CSU in communities across the state and convey the entirety of CSU efforts in any given county. I took a look at a site for the University of Missouri system. The system has focused on the collective impact by the system for the benefit of each county. I like the approach. Thinking about the size of the UC system and of California, I am tired of thinking about what it would take for us to accomplish something similar. Rhode Island would be far simpler.
There are many more conversations yet to be had this week, including more partnership opportunities. Last week's conversations produced some new agreements that I need to finalize. Mary Blackburn started the conversation during this afternoon's history discussion. Her words blew me away. I had read her story, but to hear it in her words was truly special. I have started reading through merit and promotion documents and annual evaluation documents. I have a few more than usual this year. But who knows, perhaps I will get a chance to read one of Rachel Long's stories this weekend. I just learned that she is a published author of more than research. Another example of the immense talent across UC ANR!
I hear there was rain in some places yesterday! None in Lodi. I love the cooler weather, but rain means the garden will grow – more yard work! At the risk of upsetting all gardeners out there, I will admit that after spending close to 30 minutes pruning one rose hedge on Sunday, I took to the hedge trimmers for the remaining two. They may not look as good as they could, but they will grow back. And, if that philosophy is good enough for my self-haircuts, it is good enough for the garden.
Did you know that Program Council now reviews Emeritus requests and provides a recommendation to Vice President Humiston? The new practice is the result of policy changes that require some involvement of the Academic Senate during the review process. We are fortunate that 4 Academic Senate members are Program Council members. So far, the process has gone well. The question came up during the Academic Assembly Council meeting last week.
Today the ANR Governing Council met. Much of the conversation focused on updates to our strategic plan. Specifically, the Council provided input on what success looks like and how we will recognize success (metrics). I left with some ideas to improve a goal or two. I also left with a sense that the Governing Council understands the importance of UC ANR to the UC system. There was a strong sense that success means that ANR is considered an 'essential function' and 'key to the recovery of the California economy.'
Later in the day, I met with a group of Extension Directors from around the country, and we talked about the struggle to increase our capacity funding from the U.S. Government. One member of the group reminded us that the NIFA Director challenged us to develop a 'big, bold, audacious goal' such as solving food insecurity. Funding what we have always done isn't a draw for new funding. We discussed the idea of focusing on critical areas where we could build capacity around topics that would resonate now – security (financial and food), K-12 at home, rural health, and farmer stress.
There seemed a fair bit of overlap in the conversations between the ANR Governing Council and the meeting with Extension Directors. Both discussions included recommendations to focus on crucial objectives where failure is not an option. And both sessions included conversation around the new normal, with a sense that we aren't going back to pre-COVID times. Instead, we need to find a path forward and identify new opportunities along the way. One Extension Director cautioned us, "don't over study it; if you don't move, you are going to miss it."
I need to think a bit about what all of this means. I suspect it comes down to balancing the importance of planning, even when everything is uncertain, with not getting so locked into a plan that you forfeit the nimbleness necessary for seizing fleeting opportunities.
A high point this week is learning that John Bailey was appointed to the USDA Advisory Committee on Beginning Farmers and Ranchers! The appointment was made by Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. This is quite an honor so be sure to congratulate John on this recognition!
I am in Nashville most of the week, attending the annual meeting for Experiment Station and Extension Directors. There are a few other participants as well, but it is primarily the first two groups I mentioned. Monday I spent the day attending an ECOP meeting, as one of the three representatives from the Western region. After checking off the business meeting items, much of the conversation revolved around justifying getting together even annually when we all have much to do back home. Meeting value depends on whether or not we can leverage what we have and get back more than we put in.
Much of what ECOP has addressed over the past few years is a strategy to increase federal support of Cooperative Extension (formula or capacity funds and competitive grant funds). If you aren't familiar with the term 'formula' or 'capacity' funds, these are the funds that likely pay a portion of your salary. The funding source has been a cornerstone of support for Cooperative Extension over the last century. However, costs outpace increases in capacity funds. And, with a pending downturn in the economy, there is a risk. So, how do we position ourselves to mitigate the risk of further erosion of capacity funds? ECOP talked about the fact that Cooperative Extension has not sold our value well enough to justify an increase in funding from Congress. The conversation sounded familiar to me. While a bit reassuring that other states face the same challenges as California, it doesn't change the fact that we all need to act.
Areas that ECOP identified as topics that would resonate well with Congress when faced with an economic downturn included: family financial literacy, health, and well-being, food security. Much like our conversations throughout UC ANR, the idea isn't that we do more in these areas. Instead, we frame our work not as activities but as impacts that highlight how our work makes a difference (changes conditions). ECOP discussed the benefit to all of Cooperative Extension if we increased our capacity funds if only for work related to the above topics. The idea is that all of our programs will benefit as a result of increased resources, even if directed at targeted outcomes. 'A rising tide lifts all boats' was the phrase used by someone in the group. That phrase was familiar, too.
NIFA Director, Scott Angle, met with us Tuesday afternoon. The update was far from uplifting, and I don't envy him. NIFA is down to approximately 50 employees from D.C. who plan to relocate next week plus five already hired in Kansas City. What's odd is that even Director Angle doesn't know the physical work location yet because of a secret bidding process. Director Angle suggested that states focus on increasing state funding and not rely on increased capacity funds. He also spoke about plans to change the formula for capacity funds with winners and losers in the process. It will take a couple of years to get to that point, but I would prefer to plan for the worst and be pleasantly surprised than to have it go the other way. Director Angle did mention a proposal to increase capacity funds 5% per year for five years; we will have to watch where that goes. Director Angle declared a need for Cooperative Extension and the Ag Experiment Stations to put forth audacious goals, on the scale of NASA's commitment to put a man on the moon or NIH's intent to curing cancer. Perhaps funding would be more accessible if we clarified that more significant resources are necessary to eradicate hunger.
The conversations these past two days have all the makings of a country music song. There is one more dinner meeting to attend yet tonight followed by two more days of meetings. Who knows how the tune will end.