FARGO, N.D. - A framed newspaper advertisement hangs in the office of Chris Boerboom, director of the North Dakota State University Extension Service. The ad, which features Boerboom's father, a Minnesota farmer, dates from 1962 and promotes fertilizer sold by a Minnesota farm supply company of which Cornelius Boerboom was a customer.
That ad is a relic from a bygone era, a time when farmers still were adjusting to commercial fertilizer and learning the value of it.
Today, skeptics wonder if the century-old extension service is a relic, too. They question if extension remains relevant in a world dominated by the Internet, a world in which farmers can turn to many sources for information.
The skeptics are wrong, Chris Boerboom says.
"There's a lot information available and a lot of places to get it. But we're still the place to go when you want reliable, unbiased information," he says.
Though farmers can work with agronomists and chemical companies, producers still need impartial expertise "to help them tie it all together" profitably, he says.
But the extension service's value isn't always an easy sell, particularly at a time when governments are struggling with budget problems, says Barry Dunn, dean of South Dakota State University's College of Agriculture & Biological Sciences and director of extension in the state.
"We have to prove ourselves every day, that we really are the safe, trusted, unbiased, scientific place to go for information," Dunn says.
A year ago, in response to big federal and state budget cuts, his organization completed a massive restructuring. South Dakota Extension county offices were closed, and 110 extension county agents were let go. They were replaced with eight regional offices and 65 new extension field specialists.
The reorganization isn't popular with everyone in South Dakota, but on balance has gone well, Dunn says.
North Dakota, Minnesota and Montana all continue to operate traditional county offices. Officials in the three states tell Agweek that they have no plans to move away from that.
"We're continuing to offer county-based offices to support the needs of our counties," says Larry Brence, administrator of Montana State University Extension Service's Eastern Region.
Beverly Durgan, dean of University of Minnesota Extension, also says county offices in her state will remain open.
In North Dakota, "I can't see any reason why we would change," Boerboom says.
Extension officials in North Dakota, Montana, South Dakota and Minnesota all say they're offering more online, electronic help to producers.
In Minnesota, "We're adapting to the changing needs of producers and the ag community," Durgan says.
Many Minnesota agriculturalists have smart phones and other mobile communication devices, and Minnesota extension is responding in kind, she says.
For instance, Minnesota farmers can receive text message alerts about pest outbreaks.
In Montana, extension service officials are making greater use of webinars. That way, state specialists don't spend so much time on the road traveling from meeting to meeting, Brence says.