Dr. Fred Schlutt is a forty-year Extension professional. He worked in Texas, Wyoming, Maine, and Alaska. Dr. Schlutt served for 10 years as the Director of Alaska Cooperative Extension. He was the 2017-2018 chair of ECOP (Extension Committee on Organization and Policy). He holds three degrees from Texas A&M. Dr. Schlutt currently shares his expertise 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 4 projects to participate. In Year Two (2020), 8 projects were chosen from among 33 competitive nominations across the Cooperative Extension system. Applications for Year Three – beginning in Fall 2021 – will be available shortly. You can learn about past NTAE projects here.
We recently sat down with Dr. Schlutt for a conversation about his work as a Catalyst, and what he thinks might lie in Extension’s future.
Can you tell us a little about the NTAE initiative and how it works?
NTAE (New Technologies for Ag Extension) is a product of the Farm Bill. Over the years it has been refined to its current rendition. Extension Foundation is seeking emerging, early stage, high-potential Extension projects and programs that may need help to elevate to a higher level. It’s much like how Master Gardeners grew from a simple idea many years ago. In this case, we are trying to accelerate that growth rate by providing experienced coaching and advising from former Extension administrators. We also provide each project with expert help (we call these “wrap around services”) in marketing, digital engagement, professional development, evaluation, leadership, partnerships, and publications. There is essentially $40,000 worth of in-kind expertise and experience to help a project or program accelerate.
In addition, each project is given $10,000 for a Fellowship. This can go to the project leader, to hire an outside fellow, or be shared among a number of folks.
In the first year we worked with four projects. This year we are working with eight projects. In year three, we will again be working with 8 projects, but they will be focused on the ECOP priority initiatives such as health; climate; urban agriculture; workforce development; broadband; and diversity equity, and inclusion.
Those who are interested may apply through an on-line application, which will be available very soon. The eight projects selected will start their yearlong NTAE process on September 1st.
What is a “catalyst”, and what kind of work do you undertake in this role?
I’ve been involved for two years and the role of the catalyst has evolved. It’s many things, including advisor and liaison. A catalyst works with each project team to shepherd them through the process. We help ensure each team’s success, and help to assure their local and regional impact by providing technical assistance, coaching, and professional development opportunities. We know the skills that key informants and wraparound services bring, and suggest where teams can use support. It’s an ongoing process.
Each project has different issues and challenges, so the way catalysts approach each project varies. Teams grow on many levels. That’s part of the evolution. In September, when the projects begin, we may be like Don Quixote; but a year later, we’re slaying windmills and dragons. There is so much growth and professional development.
It’s an exciting role for a former Extension director. As an Extension director, you don’t always have time to get down in the weeds with everyone. It’s more about hitting the high spots and keeping the ship afloat, and lots of challenging budget times. I’m a mentor and advisor with years of Extension experience. I love working on a weekly and sometimes daily basis with project teams.
What results and impacts have you seen?
I’ve seen a great deal of growth and professional development among the projects and team leaders. There’s also been a significant impact on some programs. One year one project was climate-related, and may receive major funding in the next year or so. Extension Foundation NTAE projects have received $6M in extramural funding.
Over the last two years, we’ve refined the process, and added catalysts. We have five former Extension directors onboard. It’s an exciting time.
You spent forty years in Extension organizations across the nation and at the national level. What have been the most significant changes you’ve seen during your career? Has COVID accelerated change? If so, in what ways?
When I first started we’d take August and November off to write reports. There is no time off anymore. I spent lots of time on the phone and in pick-up trucks to visit producers, ranchers, farmers, very intensive face-to-face. It was very rewarding. In the County I was in there were five agents and we had a daily morning show at 6 a.m.. I’d get mail with my name (Fred, County Courthouse, Abilene). The post office could deliver that because they knew who we were.
That experience of being in a county is the most rewarding thing you can do. As computers entered Extension, the speed at which we do things has really increased. Extension Foundation and our technology folks are working hard to anticipate and incorporate technologies, including artificial intelligence. This will make a significant difference in Extension work.
Forty years ago, Texas Extension was all I knew. Nowadays, someone might develop a local program that becomes statewide, regional, or national. We’re much more connected, which is a significant change. Perhaps the biggest change is the reduction in the number of employees in each state. There’s probably not a state that’s increased employment. We’ve had to learn how to do things smarter, and quicker. We’re doing the same amount of work with a significantly reduced labor force. What runs Extension is Smith-Lever (capacity funding). It has been flat for many years. We also evolved away from traditional programming (strictly production agriculture, FNCS, 4-H), into new areas of work, including urban agriculture, climate, and more.
It’s always been my philosophy that all Extension work is community development; everything we do is some way community development.
COVID-19 has accelerated change, possibly in a good way. We are using Zoom to reach and teach people rather than face-to-face. We have so much web-based content. COVID-19 has forced us to move quickly into virtual instruction, and in many ways, that’s good. Extension is Extension because you deal on a personal level with people. We’ll lose some of that, but we’ll reach far more people that can use our services.
How can Extension best prepare for periods of disruption?
Extension is embedded in a system that moves very slowly. Because of COVID-19, we’ve had to speed up technology adoption. Extension’s greatest years are beginning right now, because we can reach many more people. Extension organizations will have to become more nimble and flexible, but the system itself is not very nimble and flexible. There is a sea change at the federal level (USDA and NIFA) that will make us more nimble and flexible. This will be hard to handle for some, but others will take it and fly with it.
As you survey the post-COVID landscape, where do you think opportunities lie for Extension?
ECOP’s initiatives provide a baseline.
Health is an area where Extension can help get quality information to consumers, whether it’s about COVID-19 vaccination education or different kinds of disease and health challenges that are prevalent in our society.
Climate, without question, is going to grow in importance in this administration. Extension has a major advantage over many federal agencies, in part because we have people in virtually every county and parish in the U.S. We can make a difference in communities.
There are other specialized audiences that Extension is serving and can serve, including urban agriculture, minority-owned businesses, veterans, and individuals with disabilities. We have a framework for diversity, equity, and inclusion that supports our work.