Cooperative Extension Economic Impact Spreads Through Science, Community Involvement

May 11, 2023

By helping farmers and ranchers maximize profits and helping families save for the future, Extension affects lives in every corner of the state.

Spinach field day

Spinach growers and breeders look over a test plot of spinach at the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension Yuma Agricultural Center. Each spring, growers and breeders use this Extension research to decide which varieties to plant. Extension crop management programs like this prevent hundreds of millions of dollars in crop losses annually, according to a recent analysis.

Brad Poole

Arizona alfalfa growers have a weevil problem. 

The tiny pests and several species of their co-conspirators, alfalfa aphids, feed on the estimated 275,000 acres of the livestock feed grown statewide every year, engaging growers in a battle to pull every available dollar out of their fields.

University of Arizona Cooperative Extension research is helping them get those dollars.

“The good thing about what we are doing in Extension is that we can convert the results of this applied research into results for our growers, because we established this research based on their needs. It’s issue driven,” said Ayman Mostafa, an entomologist and Extension Associate Agent who is developing ways to keep pests out of fields and money in farmers’ pockets.

Economic development is a core mission of Extension. By creating direct links between university science and communities, Extension helps people thrive – physically, emotionally, and financially. That impact spreads in dozens of ways, affecting the bottom line for hundreds of families and businesses from our urban population centers to farms and ranches in every corner of Arizona.

Some of that impact is direct – coming from the money Extension and its employees spend to provide programming. But deeper impact comes indirectly, said Extension Interim Director Ed Martin.

The youth who don’t miss school because they are eating healthier thanks to 4-H and our nutrition and family child-care programs. Agricultural producers and schools use fewer pesticides by following Integrated Pest Management best practices. Even the homeowner who learns which varieties to plant in their garden or landscape and how to implement drip irrigation in their yard. All of these have a significant economic impact on our state, county, and local economies,” Martin said.

In 2022, Extension hired economic development consulting firm TEConomy Partners to analyze statewide impact. In their 107-page report, the analysts divided Extension’s impact into two channels – expenditure impacts, also known as economic stimulus, and functional impacts.

Overall, the return on investment in Extension was $4.87 for every dollar in direct state funding. Extension also leveraged those state dollars with $1.63 in funding from other sources, such as grants and donations, TEConomy Partners found.

Expenditure Impact  

The smaller of the two types of impact, economic stimulus, comes from spending on things like event space rental, gas for vehicles, and supplies like computers, pens, paper, and banners for events. This effect also includes money spent by Extension’s more than 600 faculty and staff, including rent and other living expenses, and by people whose jobs are generated indirectly by Extension activities.

TEConomy Partners calculated the total impact of that spending at $69.4 million in fiscal 2021, with nine of 15 counties tallying more than $1 million in economic stimulus. Extension work directly or indirectly supported 859 jobs with $36.7 million in wages, much of which is then spent in Arizona. Every dollar spent by Extension and its employees generated another $1.12 in the state economy, the analysts found.

Functional Impact

By far the biggest economic impact from Extension comes indirectly through research, collaborations, and education done by hundreds of faculty members and staff in all 15 counties and four tribal nations. Each dollar of Extension funding causes a ripple effect in the form of increased crop yields, higher wages, better health, and many other economic benefits.

These impacts are at the heart of Extension’s mission laid out in the Smith-Lever Act in 1914.

“These are the impacts that Congress envisioned as benefits to be provided through the formation of the state programs. They constitute a broad and multifaceted array of positive economic and social impacts for Arizona,” TEConomy Partners wrote in its report.

Alfalfa harvest

Arizona alfalfa growers get more crops from their fields thanks to Cooperative Extension pest management programs.

The analysts identified five main thematic areas of functional impact – agriculture production; natural resources and environmental stewardship; 4-H youth development and education; Family, Consumer, and Health Sciences; and community and business development.

The largest of these impacts is in agriculture production, where Extension science and education led to $138.5 million in increased productivity and $513 million in mitigated risk just in 2021, the analysis showed.

Extension helped cotton growers find ideal varieties for upland farming, netting $55.5 million in increased yields. The Beef Quality Assurance Program has certified more than 2,000 producers with 296,000 head of cattle – each of which will sell for $16.90 more than non-BQA certified livestock. 

Extension’s Integrated Pest Management Program, under which Mostafa is helping fight aphids and weevils, takes a holistic approach to helping farmers battle the rotating and evolving army of pests that destroy crops, Mostafa said.

While farmers used to essentially kill everything with chemicals, now they have targeted methods backed by research from Extension scientists, including insecticides that affect only pests. Extension scientists have also identified a web of weevil and aphid natural enemies, Mostafa said.

“We know there are maybe a dozen of them, and now we are going to investigate how many of the pests they can eat, at what stage (of development), so we can incorporate that into the management of these pests,” he said.

The stakes are high.

Extension research shows that ignoring the insects would lead to a loss of up to 0.9 tons per acre for each of eight to 10 alfalfa harvests annually. With alfalfa prices at about $350 per ton, that’s a loss of $315 per acre. Targeted pesticides can drop that loss to 0.5 tons or $180 per acre, Mostafa said.

These problems are unlikely to go away. Insects are very adaptable to change, and new ones are appearing.

“The good thing is that we have the tool, and this tool is science. One of the really great aspects of my job here is that I am dealing with a clientele who respect science, and know the benefit of it, and they follow it,” Mostafa said.

Alfalfa is just one of many crops that Extension science is optimizing. Similar pest management programs exist for lettuce, spinach, cotton, and other food crops. Extension science is also helping growers avoid diseases like downy mildew in spinach and fusarium wilt in watermelons.

“Many scientists live and die without seeing the fruit of their research. For me, I can see it almost every day. That’s the thing that’s pushing us every day, even if we have a new problem or challenge, we know we have the tools to deal with it,” Mostafa said.

Personal Impact

Extension also affects the bottom line for families, about 1,500 of them in recent years via the financial literacy program “Where Does Your Money Go?” said Dan McDonald, director of the Take Charge America Institute and Extension Financial Literacy Specialist.

“Through an activity in the workshop, we help participants identify what we call ‘spending leaks.’ On average, program participants - mostly adults, but also some emerging adults such as older youth - identified $2,250 in annual spending leaks,” McDonald said.

Most said they planned to save the money, he said.

That kind of direct, personal impact can have a lasting effect on a family’s financial future. In a broader sense, Extension financial literacy programs help Arizonans feel secure and confident and achieve life goals, he said.

Other positive impacts on Arizona finances include better health via nutrition programs, more stable families through parenting classes, increased earnings for former 4-H members, and improved sustainability through Extension’s many water-related programs and seminars, the analysts found.

Foundation for the Future

From the earliest days of the Cooperative Extension 109 years ago, University of Arizona scientists have been arming farmers and ranchers with the knowledge they need to succeed and sometimes to survive.  As we move deeper into the 21st century, Extension is laying groundwork aimed at sustaining that economic impact for decades to come.

The TEConomy Parters analysis is part of a multi-year process to craft a long-term Extension strategic plan. The process also included a wide-ranging needs assessment. Extension will work with a consultant to complete the plan.