Sauk County would hire a full-time agriculture agent under a budget proposal endorsed Wednesday by the County Board’s University of Wisconsin-Extension Committee.
The committee voted 4-1 to bring back the full-time ag agent position and fill a vacant family and youth educator position. Morgan McArthur has won raves for his efforts as the interim ag agent working on a part-time basis, but committee members and staff agreed a full-time agent is needed.
“Sauk County is an ag county. We need an ag agent,” said Supervisor Donna Stehling of Sauk City.
The committee’s recommendation will go to the full board as it writes its 2018 budget. If the Extension budget is approved, Regional Extension Director Jeff Hoffman hopes to hire the new agents early next year.
“I’m willing to fight at the County Board,” said Supervisor John Dietz of Rock Springs.
The UW-Extension program has faced considerable uncertainty in recent years, as state budget cuts prompted the University of Wisconsin System to reorganize Extension regionally.
Supervisor Chuck Spencer of Baraboo, the lone vote against the budget measure, said unknown state funding levels could affect the county’s ability to afford the hires. He inquired about cheaper alternatives, such as farming out some of the work to other departments.
“I think we have another year or two of chaos coming up,” Spencer said. “Is it the right time to buy in?”
Community Development Resource Agent Jennifer Erickson said it appears UW will provide funding for the local office’s four full-time agent positions. The state pays roughly half the cost of salary and benefits. “It looks like it’s going to work out,” she said.
A full-time ag agent would cost the county about $44,000. The family and youth educator would cost about $40,000.
The county floated the possibility of sharing Columbia County’s ag agent, but its neighbor isn’t interested. McArthur has been handling only the necessities in his limited time, with help from soil experts in the Conservation, Planning and Zoning Department. Many in the meeting room agreed a full-time ag agent is needed.
“I find this to be a critical, critical position for Sauk County,” Erickson said. “Agriculture is foundational to our economy.”
Supervisor Tom Kriegl, who’s not a member of the committee but attended Wednesday’s meeting, said there should be money in the county budget to fill the Extension staff. An anticipated 15 percent increase in health insurance costs came in under 6 percent. “There’s no crisis in the county budget except in people’s minds,” he said.
UW-Extension was created to ensure the university’s resources extend to every corner of the state. Kriegl said the county shouldn’t let UW’s reorganization of the program deprive local farmers of access to the university. “We shouldn’t punish the citizens of Sauk County for that,” he said. “It’s such a small cost and the benefits are so big.”