Dr. Ed Martin Charting a course for Arizona Cooperative Extension; a strategic action plan expected later this year will help Extension continue to impact lives across the state in the years to come.
If Covid taught us anything it is that the world can change – suddenly, drastically, and permanently.
Preparing Arizona communities to face the challenges of an evolving 21st century requires careful planning, so University of Arizona Cooperative Extension leaders, with Director Dr. Ed Martin at the helm, last year launched an effort to craft a long-term strategic action plan that can help Extension evolve with community needs.
“We have to prepare the people we work with for jobs that don’t even exist yet, and that’s a very difficult thing to do,” Martin said.
Extension has completed two pillars of the plan – a needs assessment survey, and an economic impact analysis. Extension’s Community Research, Evaluation, & Development (CRED) team led by Associate Director of Family, Consumer & Health Sciences Dr. Michele Walsh created and executed the needs assessment. A consultant, TEConomy Partners, handled the economic impact study.
“The next step is to use both of those data sources to help us develop a strategic action plan, which is something that we haven’t done in seven or eight years,” Martin said.
Getting strategies up to date is important because the needs and challenges in Arizona communities have changed in the past decade. One goal is to increase intentionality, Martin said.
“There’s got to be a reason why, rather than ‘That’s the way we did it before.’ So, why are we hiring that position? Because we always had one. No. We’re hiring that position because there is a documented need,” he said.
In the needs assessment, Extension got answers to 99 questions from more than 3,200 people in all 15 Arizona counties. The assessment did not examine tribal needs separately, which, to be effective, will require a specific assessment that respects the data sovereignty of tribes. Instead, tribal members were included as county residents. Topics included health and community well-being; education and youth development; community and economic development; agriculture; and natural resources and environment.
Respondents ranked each question’s importance from “extremely” to “not at all.” For example, 95 percent of respondents said quality K-12 education is extremely or very important, while 1 percent said it was not important at all. Water conservation also ranked high among priorities with 95 percent labeling it extremely or very important.
The survey successfully reached Arizonans unfamiliar with Extension. Thirty-five percent of respondents knew “nothing” or “a little bit” about Cooperative Extension. Thirty-one percent didn’t think they had participated in an Extension program.
This is the most robust needs assessment in recent history undertaken by Cooperative Extension in Arizona, and increasing awareness of Extension programs is vital, said Trent Teegerstrom, Associate Director for Tribal Programs who serves on the committee guiding the plan’s development.
“That’s a big question for the Cooperative Extension right now – How do we reach the people who don’t know who we are?” Teegerstrom said.
Some things arose in the survey that Extension is already doing but not spotlighting. An example – preventing child abuse and neglect, which was the top health and community well-being priority for respondents. Although Extension has no programs labeled as child abuse prevention, there are positive parenting classes, Martin said.
“Well, that reduces child abuse. Maybe people don’t associate positive parenting with preventing child abuse, so maybe we have to talk about it differently,” he said.
The economic impact study, looked at two types of impact – operational and functional.
Operational impact comes directly from money Extension or staff spend, including paying for supplies, utilities, housing, and transportation. Functional impact – a core reason Cooperative Extension exists – is driven by helping agriculture, communities, families, and youth prosper. Extension programming has significant impact, in real dollars, on Arizona’s overall prosperity.
The study showed that Cooperative Extension serves as a force multiplier for state investment. Every dollar the Legislature gives to Extension programs generates $4.87 in impact, the researchers found.
That’s a great return for Cooperative Extension investment, said Teegerstrom, an economist by training.
“It shows the value of the Extension to the state, the communities, and the tribes. It shows that the work we are doing is valuable, that it’s paying out to our constituents and the state,” he said.
Every year, Extension programs lead to $138.5 million in increased productivity from improved crop yields, beef quality, and increased income for former 4-Hers. Extension work also offsets or mitigates more than $500 million in losses from foodborne diseases, poor water conservation, and healthcare costs.
Effective, aggressive grant-writing by agents and staff amplifies impact even further. These efforts set Arizona apart from other states, where Extension relies more on state funds, Martin said.
The goal is to update the emerging plan annually, maybe with a new needs assessment every five years.
Regularly updating strategies would help Extension avoid long-term investment in passing fads. One recent example: Chickens. With eggs at $5 per dozen, suddenly lots of people want information about raising, feeding, and caring for chickens, but maybe next year the price of eggs will drop along with community interest. It’s important to avoid the temptation of fads, Martin said.
“If we don’t, maybe we end up with a chicken specialist for the next 40 years who doesn’t have a lot to do,” he said.
In the coming months, Extension will hire a consultant to gather input from stakeholders statewide, including industry partners and Extension employees, to help determine what to put in the plan and decide where to invest resources, Martin said.
Teegerstrom wants Extension staff in the field to rely on the coming plan to keep Extension on track as we maneuver through the 21st century.
“I hope it will be heavily used. I think it’s going to really help us moving forward - for the long-term. Needs in the communities and the nations always change, but we need to stay our course,” he said.
Martin plans to have a draft of the strategic action plan by August.