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It's time to stand up for research and extension

That the North Dakota State Board of Agricultural Research and Education decided not to start charging low-population counties more money for extension services can be hailed as a victory for rural areas. Towns that have seen people and businesses move out won't see their extension offices move out, at least not without it being their own decision.

The decision also could be a victory for extension and research funding as a whole — but only if the users of those services continue to stand up and let their voices be heard.

As SBARE's proposal to charge counties with fewer than 2,000 people more for extension agents became known, board members received hundreds of letters attesting to the importance of county extension agents, particularly from the counties with the fewest people. And many, many people showed up at meetings, either to voice their opposition or to support those who were standing up to talk.

In the end, the board voted unanimously that all counties must be treated equally in extension funding. If a county decides to merge with another county for extension services, that will be a local decision.

Despite the enormous unpopularity of the proposal, SBARE board members say they are glad it was introduced — if for no other reason than that it seemed to have highlighted how important extension really is. The challenge going forward will be to harness that energy and passion.

If the hundreds of people who made their voices heard to SBARE will show up at the North Dakota Legislature next session when the issue of funding for extension and research comes up, maybe the programs won't be looking at significant cuts next time.

It's not just a North Dakota issue. All of the states in the region have grappled with budget problems, and extension and research have been threatened. And it's time for people to stand up and tell their lawmakers how important — how vital — those programs really are.

We can't just depend on extension and research officials to make the case for us.

Expert voices can become lost in the hours and hours of testimony lawmakers hear. But a packed hearing room, full of real people with real stories full of real passion, is harder to forget.

If your child has found her place in the world through 4-H, tell those stories to your local lawmakers. If your extension agent tested your feed for nitrates, bring that information to the Capitol steps. If you've utilized research from the extension research centers on your farm or ranch or in your kitchen, call up your local representative and senator and tell them how important it is that the research continues.

The people in the counties that saw their extension offices threatened stepped up. They organized rallies, called their lawmakers, wrote letters, notified the media and showed up to SBARE meetings. And it worked.

What happened at SBARE can happen at any level. Enough people making their voices heard can make a difference. And this time, let's not wait until someone is threatened with losing their extension office or their research center. Tell your representatives now that this is an issue that is important to you — and one that might affect your vote at the next election.

Everyone in agriculture benefits from adequately funded research and extension. Let's put our voices together and make sure the decision makers in our states know it, too.