BROOKINGS, S.D. - SDSU Extension may be 100 years old this month, but it's using the milestone to set its future leadership direction in the state based on a recent survey that shows SDSU Extension remains South Dakotans' trusted, go-to source for unbiased, research-based information.
"While we're 100 years old, in the age of information overload, SDSU Extension remains the safe and trusted place where South Dakotans know our only agenda is their success," says Barry Dunn, former Dean of the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences and former Director of SDSU Extension.
The SDSU Extension Benchmark Survey, conducted by a third-party source, includes information gleaned from extensive interviews with 400 South Dakota crop and livestock producers as well as users of one or more of SDSU Extension's five additional key program areas, which include: community development, food and families, urban/rural initiatives, Native American programs and 4-H Youth development.
Combined, the common theme from all respondents is that SDSU Extension is a leader and trusted source of unbiased, relevant information. Nearly 95 percent of respondents surveyed already utilize SDSU Extension services and reported positive experiences.
"It was affirming," says Dunn, of his reaction to the survey, which was conducted throughout 2013. "It was positive to know we are on the right track and that if we continue to follow this path we will be even more successful in serving our state."
Service to South Dakota is the foundation upon which extension was established 100 years ago. A product of the Smith Lever Act of 1914, SDSU Extension was established to serve as the outreach arm of South Dakota State University, South Dakota's land grant institution.
Reorganized to Better Serve
Three years ago, SDSU Extension made a bold, unprecedented move to make the first major operational change in its history by reorganizing to meet the needs of today's technology-savvy marketplace.
Dunn explains that today's SDSU Extension is a vibrant, responsive system, which provides research-based information through innovative and progressive outreach services that strengthen South Dakota's agriculture, natural resources, families and communities.
"SDSU Extension is available where South Dakotans' turn for information," Dunn says.
One of the major enhancements to information delivery that SDSU Extension introduced was to launch iGrow, an online learning platform that provides research-based information 24-7.
Although 4-H programming continues to operate at the county level, 4-H programming is now implemented by a focused team of 4-H and Youth Advisors. All other SDSU Extension programs operate out of regional centers. The faculty who also serve as SDSU Extension Specialists still operate from campus here in Brookings or the West River Ag Center in Rapid City.
"With limited resources, we find iGrow and the regional model to be a very effective way for our specialists to reach citizens of the state," Dunn says.
Dunn's comments are backed by the SDSU Extension Benchmark Survey, which discovered that not only was SDSU Extension meeting the land-grant mission, but also that changes made to the delivery system through the reorganization were in-line with the evolving needs of South Dakotans.
More and more, South Dakotans are going to iGrow for information on everything from crop and livestock production to community gardens, food preservation and nutrition. The survey revealed that awareness and usage of the iGrow.org website tends to increase with the level of education and income of respondents. And a younger demographic, ages 18-49, are the highest user group of iGrow.
Agriculture Grows with Extension
Supporting agriculture is one of the original reasons extension was established. Because the industry has the greatest economic impact on the state, a portion of the survey effort was focused on crop and livestock producers.
The survey confirmed that crop and livestock producers trust Extension. SDSU Extension ranks second highest behind veterinarians for being the most trustworthy source of information about ag science or best practices in agriculture.
SDSU Extension is best know for its involvement with 4-H and youth development programs. Producers carry this connective experience throughout their careers as farmers and ranchers. For example, 4-H families are more likely than non-4-H families to be aware of and use SDSU Extension services.
The Benchmark study also showed that highly educated, successful producers use Extension. The likelihood that farmers will turn first to SDSU Extension when they need reliable information on ag science or best practices tends to increase with the level of education. And producers with a gross farm income over $250,000 consistently use SDSU Extension services more than other producers.
According to survey respondents, the most needed types of information to be a competitive producer in the future include information about chemical/pesticide usage, seed hybrids/genetics, marketing and exports and best practices for managing input costs and increasing profits. Overall, there is a growing demand for science-based knowledge that can help increase productivity, profitability and global competitiveness. And South Dakota producers trust SDSU Extension for that unbiased, research-driven knowledge.
Built on a Foundation of Trust
Since the beginning, Extension has been tasked to bring the land-grant mission of research, education and outreach full circle. And, it continues to accomplish this task through a team of highly skilled specialists who provide research-based information and education, create opportunities and empower individuals, explains Karla Trautman, SDSU Extension Associate Director.
"Our staff has risen to the challenge. They work hard to build relationships and engage communities of learners in vibrant and relevant programs," Trautman says. "They have developed strong collaborations and partnerships which support the land-grant mission."
The highly skilled professionals Trautman references have always been keys to providing research-based information and resources to consumers in ways that are relevant to meeting the everyday needs of South Dakotans, explains Alvaro Garcia, SDSU Extension Agriculture & Natural Resource Program Director.
"SDSU Extension specialists have the capacity to filter research and information and provide individuals with what they are looking for in a way they can understand and implement," Garcia says. "Just as our world is constantly changing, SDSU Extension is evolving. Our specialists continually look for innovative ways to furnish information."
Garcia believes the reorganization made the team much more effective at disseminating information. Through the reorganization, expectations of staff moved from them serving as county-based generalists to serving the state as specialists focused on specific areas identified within each program.
"Not only are we providing information needed today, but our specialists are visionaries. They look ahead to identify future issues so we are ready to respond quickly with research-based information and resources," Garcia says.
Suzanne Stluka, SDSU Extension Food & Families Program Director would agree. Like all SDSU Extension program directors, Stluka oversees several specialists who focus on a variety of areas within the program area. She points to collaboration as an effective way specialists work with communities to provide them with needed information and expertise in order to help them develop their own solutions.
"We train volunteers, located in communities throughout South Dakota, who are passionate about food preservation on the latest in research-based food preservation methods. These volunteers then reach out to share that knowledge within and beyond their communities," Stluka explains.
This type of practical response is not unique within SDSU Extension, says Trautman.
"Our specialists are closely linked to a community of learners. We listen to their needs. We have earned their trust and are seen as respected leaders within the state. This allows the information and programming SDSU Extension provides to be consumer- and producer-driven."