In Conversation with Dr. Rick Klemme

Richard Klemme

Dr. Rick Klemme grew up on a farm in east-central Illinois. He received his BA in economics and math from Illinois State University. He later earned an MA and Ph.D. in agricultural economics from Purdue. Rick began his nearly four-decade Extension career as an agricultural economist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW). He later became Dean and Director of UW Extension. Rick transitioned from that assignment to serve as the Executive Director of Extension’s Committee on Organization and Policy (ECOP), where he worked for nearly four years.

Rick recently finished his first year as an Extension Foundation Catalyst. Catalysts are Extension experts who support New Technologies for Ag Extension (NTAE) projects chosen to participate in Extension Foundation’s project accelerator program. This program is part of a cooperative agreement with USDA-NIFA. In Year One (2019), the Extension Foundation selected four projects for participation. In Year Two (2020), eight projects were chosen from among 33 competitive nominations across the Cooperative Extension system. Year Three projects will begin in Fall 2021. You can learn about past NTAE projects here.

We sat down to talk about his career in Extension, his role as a Catalyst, and what projects he’s currently working on.

 

Can you tell us a little about your work as an NTAE Catalyst? What results/impacts have you seen to date?

My work started about a year ago. It was a new role for me and has provided me an opportunity to engage with project teams on the ground level. The teams are from around the country and working in different program areas. 

It’s fun to watch the NTAE projects mature and develop over time and see how teams hone in on what they want to accomplish. It’s been interesting to help NTAE teams access the Extension Foundation’s team of Key Informants and build better projects. I’ve seen individuals and teams expand their horizons, grow their capacity, and in some cases, begin scaling their program work up.

 

What’s your assignment for this upcoming year?

I’ll be focusing on three areas. I’m tentatively working with three of the new project teams. In that role, I’ll also be mentoring new catalysts coming on board, which will be fun. The roles for catalysts and key informants will be different this year because there are more and different types of project teams.

I’m working on special projects that focus on the food system, including work with Food System 6 (FS6). FS6 supports food entrepreneurs from around the country working towards a more just and regenerative food system. Smaller producers face so many challenges: labor, climate change, market access, and many more. But they also experienced a consumer demand bonanza in 2020 due to COVID-19. For example, nearly every Wisconsin CSA farm was over-subscribed.  

It’s interesting to see how difficult it is for individual entrepreneurs to operate successfully in a landscape dominated by Sysco Foods, Wal-Mart, Costco, and other large retail chains across the country. We’re trying to find the balance of compatibility. We’re not trying to pit small local foods producers against the larger retail sector. Instead, we’re trying to figure out how they can co-exist more effectively and have products in individual and chain grocery stores. We’re also trying to address food access and food deserts, which exist in both rural and urban areas.  Even though intensive, small-scale rural farmers may be sending their products to cities, people who live in these rural communities may have trouble accessing fresh food.

Another project I’m working with involves Washington State University. It focuses on resilient communities. It’s just getting underway. Creating resilient communities is even more critical now as we face climate change, the pandemic, and a changing economy. It’s vital for both rural and urban communities. I think there is a strong potential for work in community resilience to bring people together to co-learn across the country and share what’s worked in different places. This sharing might enable us to replicate successful work in other communities.

These are exciting projects, and I’m eager for the work ahead.

 

You spent decades in Extension. What have been the most significant changes you’ve seen during your career? 

I’ve had several different jobs in Extension: as a faculty member, program leader, Extension leader, and then as executive director of ECOP. For most of my career, I stayed in one place (University of Wisconsin). During my time in Extension, I’ve seen many changes. On the agricultural side, farms have grown in size and complexity. Ag agents have very different jobs than 35 years ago.

Our traditional home economics field has changed, as well. It’s always been a staple of our county programs. Interestingly, we’re once again offering canning programs driven by the huge surge of interest in home and community gardening. The point is, we morphed those programs. People had to change what they did and how they taught. We needed to evolve to meet changing needs and to be current with the times. While we still have a lot of traditional programming in 4-H, we have new youth development efforts. Program areas change over time.

The great thing about Extension has been the strong legacy in agriculture, 4-H, and home economics programming. That’s also been our biggest challenge because people hang on to how we used to operate, which relied on an expert model, one on one, very practically oriented information, and vital information at the time. While providing practically oriented and vital information remains important, the educator-client relationship has shifted to reflect changing needs and information delivery methods. 

Demographics change, resulting in clientele and partners. In Wisconsin, like many other states, we’ve improved our ability to interact and engage with diverse audiences, including Hmong, Native American, Black, and Hispanic populations. We learned that the ability to understand different cultures was critically important in reaching people.  We not only engaged with community leaders, clan leaders, and tribal councils, but we also hired members of our Extension team from within those communities.

In nutrition education, we discovered that bringing community members who understand the cultural importance of food and, in some cases, indigenous foods was important. These individuals were able to integrate that knowledge into a curriculum developed by and for White populations. It represented a big step for us. We hire educators from the communities in which we work. It’s one thing to talk about inclusion and another thing to act upon it. Inclusion means engaging, listening, and diversifying the Extension workforce to reflect the communities in which we work.

If we hadn’t changed, I am not sure that Extension would still exist? 

I’ve often bragged about the growth of community development in Extension programs. In Wisconsin, we embraced community development as being very important to local communities. Having access to Extension community development resources has proven critical for some community-based organizations and local business owners. We’ve also grown urban Extension work tremendously over the last 20-30 years, working with new audiences and in different ways.

Responding to local needs, being resilient, and providing what is needed in rural and urban populations keeps Extension relevant.

 

Where do you think opportunities lie for Extension now and in the future?

I think many of the opportunities rely on embracing the engagement role that Extension has in communities. We’re moving from an expert model to a learning and facilitation model, an engagement model. Colleagues are realizing and incorporating local knowledge and experiences into the educational program. That’s a hallmark of successful Extension programming.

When I look at younger faculty on campus with research and Extension appointments today, I see the engagement level climb. I saw that kind of engagement many years ago, where a group of relatively few producers (potato producers, for example) knew specialists on a first-name basis. I think that was the forerunner of today’s engaged campus specialists.

I think this kind of engagement is a harbinger. One of the primary values of Extension is its ability to coalesce resources locally and do a lot of the behind-the-scenes work.

 

What are you particularly excited about right now?

I’m excited about the work in community resilience and food systems. I serve on the board of directors for a Wisconsin-based non-profit organization – FairShare – that works with farmers that run community-supported agriculture operations (CSAs). We’ve helped enable, empower, and provide capacity for farmers to operate locally under the umbrella of larger food chains and systems. A sustainable agricultural center that I was involved with helped the predecessor of Fair Share form as a 501c3. It’s nice to come full circle.

 

What books, podcasts, etc., are currently informing your thinking?

I enjoy books and documentaries that document the entry into World War II of different allied powers. I am especially intrigued with the challenges faced by leaders during that era, notably Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  I also enjoyed the PBS series Atlantic Crossing, which also centers on World War II.

I found the PBS series created by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick – The Vietnam War – incredibly informative. It demonstrates the cumulative set of errors surrounding our involvement in Vietnam and what that has meant to our nation. It’s a revealing and sad commentary that explores the importance of transparency and listening to all voices.

David Maraniss produced an excellent book about Vietnam and the 1960s, entitled They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace in Vietnam and America. Marranis is a Washington Post associate editor and a Pulitzer Prize winner. He’s also a Wisconsin native and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin. That book is incredibly resonant with me for many reasons, including his exploration of Vietnam activism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. 

I’m also a fan of James Patterson, who writes mystery novels.

 

Related Reading:

A Conversation with Dr. Scott Reed, Extension Foundation Catalyst

Accelerating Success: Q&A with Dr. Fred Schlutt

Q&A with Chuck Hibberd