If you care about the future of cooperative extension services for wine grape growers, don’t miss Cliff Ohmart’s “Vineyard View” column in this issue. Ohmart has produced a careful explanation of how severely California’s extension system has shrunk in recent years.
It’s alarming to read his accounting of abandoned positions—86 farm advisors and specialists over a four-year period covering all crops, or a 22% loss. Currently, wine grape extension experts in California are spread thin. Each covers an average of 70,000 acres, Ohmart calculates, which is like having one advisor for all the vineyards in Washington and Oregon combined.
The extension shortage has also been on the mind of Dr. Jim Wolpert, who recently retired as a viticulture professor for the University of California, Davis, and who at one time was the state’s lead extension viticulture expert. He lamented the sad state of staffing in the UC Cooperative Extension system while accepting the annual Merit Award from the American Society for Enology and Viticulture (see “Professor Decrees Shortage of Farm Advisors
Wolpert held out no hope that the system would restore its robust vitality of 25 years ago, but he did find a light pointing in a promising direction. He mentioned that the California Table Grape Commission recently stepped up to help renew extension services for its growers by pledging money to the university.
Dollars for advisors
I spoke to both the executive director of the table grape commission, Kathleen Nave, and to the man in charge of the UCCE extension positions, Bill Frost, to find out how this will work. The California Table Grape Commission is a grower-approved, state-mandated commodity group that collects an assessment on every box of table grapes sold. Its board decides how to spend those dollars.
Nave said that her board watched extension positions evaporate in Kern County and Tulare County, and only one position remained filled in Fresno County—held by a person with multiple other responsibilities. “When we realized that over time we had lost the farm advisors that would have been involved with 80% of the table grapes in California, and that table grapes were not on the priority list of the university, our commission decided to have a conversation with UC about this.”
The commission was fortunate to have reserves in its budget, and it offered to fund one viticulture extension position for six years in one of the key counties if UC would fund another permanent position with public money in the other. Discussions began in August 2012, and as of July 2013 interviews were about to begin. The table grape growers’ support of $840,000 will provide $140,000 annually for salary and benefits, enough to attract very knowledgeable candidates.
The university should have done this itself, the commission members thought, but in the end they decided that the university was very unlikely to, so they pledged the money. “It’s unfortunate,” Nave said, “but it did seem to be necessary.” Could this approach work for other crops? Rice growers and pistachio growers have done it. Wine grape growers are at a disadvantage, however, because they have no statewide commission behind them.
Brighter than many realize
Still, UC welcomes the discussion of partnerships from a variety of public or private entities, according to Bill Frost, associate director of Cooperative Extension under the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources division. He said that despite the undeniably diminished extension staff, the situation is brighter than many in the wine industry realize.
“The ANR leadership is firmly committed to putting resources into new positions,” Frost said. Thirty-one candidates have accepted offers for extension jobs in all crops since January 2012, and 73 positions are in recruitment or will be by the end of 2014, according to Frost.
Things are happening fast, Frost said, with a little industry help and more importantly with a stabilized state budget. “Under vice president of ANR Barbara Allen-Diaz, it is by far the most aggressive hiring I’ve seen in 20 years.”
If the dawn is about to break, professionals including Wolpert and Ohmart remain doubting in the dark. Will there be enough funding to support not just extension services but the research they are supposed to extend? Will the best people be wary of taking positions funded for only six years? Will the state budget remain stable?
One thing is clear, though. Specific crops, counties or regions with extension needs now have a precedent to follow if they want to ensure extra extension help. If—and it’s a big “if” for wine grape growers—they can foot a big part of the bill.