The job description for county agricultural agents does not change much in the 21st Century, but the way agents carry out their duties will undergo some significant transformations.

“We have to work smarter,” said Billy Dictson, associate dean and director of the New Mexico Cooperative Extension Service. “Agriculture is a tough business. Farmers fight the elements, including wind, hail, cold winters, drought and hot summers. It takes a good farmer to make a living under these conditions, and the ones that succeed find niches that provide profit opportunity.

“It's our job to help them find and take advantage of those opportunities.”

Dictson discussed some of the challenges facing agriculture and the Extension Service recently during the National Association of County Agricultural Agents annual meeting in Albuquerque.

“Farmers still deal with many of the same problems they've always faced,’ Dictson said, “but the way they deal with those problems and the way county agents help, is different.

“Every agent in the state has a state-of-the-art computer.”

They all are or soon will be linked to the Internet with high speed lines that will help them find answers to farmers' questions.

Dictson said agents and their clients also have access to distance learning opportunities. “We can have clients come into the county offices and participate in distance learning,” he said. “Those with computers and Internet access can get a lot of data from their homes. We archive our information, so they can pick it up at their convenience.”

Dictson said New Mexico is a large state and distance learning allows specialists, agents and farm families to participate in special events and seminars without having to travel more than a few miles.

Dictson said Extension also attacks problems from multiple angles.

“We're relying more and more on task forces, composed of several disciplines, to help solve problems,” he said.

He cites two examples:

One task force is charged with making the New Mexico chile industry more competitive with foreign producers. “We're looking at water needs, production practices, mechanical harvesting and other options to make the industry more profitable,” Dictson said. “We're making progress.”

A water task force will “bring science to the complex water issues that face the state. Water issues often pit municipalities, manufacturing and rural entities against each other,” Dictson said. “We want to take some of the emotion out of the discussions and bring science to the agenda.”

Funding will be a critical challenge for the Extension Service in the near future.

“It's more difficult than it used to be,” said Jerry Schickedanz, dean and chief administrative officer of the College of Agriculture and Home Economics.

“Before, if we did a good job, funding was available,” Schickedanz said. “Today, it requires more than a good job. County, state and federal governments are doing all they can, so we're looking for new partnerships to help fund programs.”

He said industry and foundations offer the best options for funding. “We have a serious challenge to find adequate funding,” he said.

Dictson said the Extension Service must be careful when seeking funds so that credibility is never compromised.

“We sometimes get accused of getting in bed with chemical companies,” he said. “But we know we can't be advocates of particular products. We provide good science through cooperation with various companies. There is a lot of difference between cooperation and advocacy.”

He said NACAA's position is that the Extension service will recognize but not necessarily recommend one product over others.

“We want to maintain a healthy relationship with industry,” he said. “We want to work together, but we have to be careful. The key is using pure science to help companies (develop products) that help farmers.”

Dictson said keeping minor use products on the market has been an important role for Extension through the IR-4 program.

“We have a lot of minor use crops in New Mexico, and companies often can not afford to register or re-register products for those small markets. Through IR-4, we can do the science and help get products labeled.”

Dictson and Schickedanz say soft money has helped fund Extension programs as federal and state monies have leveled off for the past 12 to 15 years.

“We look for soft money that matches our overall mission,” Dictson said. ‘Sometimes we're able to double our program budgets because of grants and contracts for soft money.

“We can keep our base program strong with these funds but we have to be careful that we don't put this money into hard programs and depend on them to keep those programs running.”

Dictson said major issues facing New Mexico agriculture include population growth, loss prime farmland, forest and urban interface as citizens move into rural areas, public lands, water and endangered species issues.

Water, he said, will be the No. 1 issue.

rsmith@primediabusiness.com