Nick Baker’s official job title is agriculture agent for UW Extension’s Rock County office.
But recently, his work responsibilities have taken him beyond his title’s geographical limits.
Baker has fielded most of Walworth County’s farm calls for the past year, after the county’s agriculture agent retired and was never replaced. Another recent retirement in Green County has required him to spend time there, too, he said.
His expanded role is due to the overall UW System merger, a restructuring plan approved by the Board of Regents in November and still being implemented.
Each of the state’s 13 two-year colleges is now joined with a nearby four-year university. UW System officials argued the move is necessary because of declining enrollment at two-year colleges and aging demographics across the state.
Under the merger, UW-Madison will absorb the UW Extension program. Baker said he isn’t quite sure what that will look like because it does not take effect until July.
“They call it the ‘next generation restructuring,’ what Extension has been going through the last two years,” Baker said. “It’s really been a slow, methodical process. We keep hearing the end product will be an efficient, cost-effective Extension service that can still provide resources.”
Baker started working at Rock County’s Extension office in 2014. When he was hired, the office had one agent each for agriculture, horticulture and family living and two people dedicated to 4-H, he said.
Right now, he and the family living agent are the only agents left.
The office is actively filling one of the 4-H positions, and the other will be filled later. The horticulture agent will become a part-time job, Baker said.
All three of those positions have been vacant for months. UW Extension has tried to “strategically” fill them to deal with budget cuts and changed job descriptions under the merger, he said.
That has forced Baker and other agents to pick up the slack. Besides the openings in Green and Walworth counties, there’s currently no agriculture agent in Vernon, Crawford, Grant or Lafayette counties, and that’s only the southwestern corner of the state.
Baker and his colleagues initially worried that they could lose their jobs. But the UW System has said all current Extension employees will keep their jobs, though they could be reassigned, Baker said.
When UW Extension started in the early 1900s, it was the go-to crop consultant for thousands of Wisconsin farmers. Farmers are fewer now, and many take their questions to the private sector or have become their own experts, Baker said.
His calls are more specific than they used to be, and he ventures out to farms to help solve problems when a consultant or farmer is stumped.
But Extension offices are still a “mile wide and an inch deep,” offering resources on dozens of topics, Baker said.
“We don’t want to ever be considered obsolete or behind,” he said. “We want to make sure we meet the needs of the current population.”
A UW System statement emailed to The Gazette said little about Extension’s role after it consolidates with UW-Madison.
The transition will help connect the university’s research mission with Extension agents’ expertise, spokeswoman Stephanie Marquis said in the email.
Extension offices still play “crucial roles” in local communities and will continue to do so, she wrote.
Baker said a renewed focus on research will especially help Extension’s agricultural side. He and other agriculture agents already work closely with the state’s flagship campus.
All county Extension offices are expected to remain open. People won’t have to drive to Madison for consultation, which is important, he said.
Baker said he knows one aspect of the revamped UW Extension is to have 23 area directors who will each oversee a handful of counties and serve as liaisons to UW-Madison.
Rock County will be grouped with Walworth and Jefferson counties. This area’s director, Chrissy Wen, will be housed in Walworth County, he said.
But how everything will work come July is still murky.
“We have more questions than answers. I know it’s a work in progress,” Baker said. “It will definitely be a stress relief when we do get some answers and get more aspects of the transition implemented.”