Posted: June 16, 2017

Penn State Extension changes how it does business to give customers what they want, when they want it, and how they want it.

Once upon a time there was a farmer who dreamed of expanding his operation to include beef cattle. One night, he was so preoccupied with his fantasy that he couldn't sleep. The man got out of bed, went to the kitchen, and poured himself a glass of milk. Sitting alone at an old wooden table wondering what to do next, he reached for his iPad. "Beef production," he typed into Google. Results populated the screen. "Ah, Penn State Extension, I trust them," he muttered. Within minutes he dug out his credit card, registered for an online course in beef production and management, and began learning how to grow his business. What was once a dream became reality.

This tale of Penn State Extension is an example of the ones that will be told in the near future as the organization assumes its new identity to enhance its customer-focused programming.

"For more than 100 years, Penn State Extension has been a trusted source of information about agriculture," says Dennis Calvin, director of Penn State Extension. "But for the people extension serves, this information hasn't always been easy to come by. We've been very internally focused in the past; it's time to become focused on a broader set of customers, including the thousands who visit our website each day."

Specific issues with extension, Calvin notes, have included hard-to-get-to courses. "Time is money, and farmers can't just leave the farm to take a weekly class located 50 miles away," he says. "But they do have problems that need to be solved, and they want information."

The organization's website, too, has been a liability, with an architecture that was challenging to navigate and critical information seemingly hidden. "Eighteen thousand people come to extension's website every day," says Jeff Hyde, associate director of programming for Penn State Extension. "We realized it was time to give people information where they want it, when they want it, and how they want it."

According to Calvin, it's this desire to better serve customers that triggered extension, about four years ago, to embark on a major transformation into a more modern education organization. To be unveiled this summer, the "new" extension will make it possible for anyone anywhere to learn about a wide variety of issues in agriculture.

Specifically, new digital platforms will allow customers to access information on topics however they want it--by reading articles online, watching videos, taking online courses, or attending workshops, as well as other options. Customers located near extension offices will still have just as many opportunities to meet one on one with educators and participate in face-to-face classes and workshops. But for those who are either too far away or too busy, numerous online opportunities now are available to meet their educational needs.

Not only does the new extension include a brand-new, easily navigable website and many more opportunities for online learning, but it also includes a shift in the way extension educators are organized across the state and in the duties they are expected to perform. "The idea for this transformation grew over time from a narrowly defined goal of just a new website to an all-encompassing change in the entire organization; it's how we do business now," says Hyde.

A New Digital Education Platform

Driving these changes in Penn State Extension has been a focus on the core values of education, and a motto emerged capturing the spirit--"We believe all people should have access to science-based education." There's nothing truer than that, says Calvin. "It's what the land-grant mission is all about. Whether it's related to water quality, the Food Safety Modernization Act, whatever, people need science-based information, and it's our job to make it as easy as possible for them to get it."

That's why the reinvention of how extension utilizes online delivery and face-to-face engagement was so critical. For many, the launch of the new website will be a turning point for the organization. Whereas before, the website included thousands of pieces of unconnected information hanging out in cyberspace in a fashion that reflected the internal structure of the organization--something opaque to most customers. The new site was built with the customer's experience in mind and stores information within a simple architectural scheme, has a clean look, and is easily searchable so people can find what they need quickly.

"We wanted to make sure if there is a person who wants to know about gypsy moth and they arrive at our site, they can quickly see everything we have about gypsy moth," says Hyde. "That includes every article, every news piece, every publication, every workshop, every online course, and every video, and they can slice and dice that content through filters, much like you would see at, so you get what you need quickly."

Customers located near extension offices will still have just as many opportunities to meet one on one with educators and participate in face to face classes and workshops. But for those who are either too far away or too busy, numerous online options are now available.

Rick Roush, dean of the College of Agricultural Sciences, agrees with Hyde about the value of a good website. "People don't have time to search through a website to find what they are looking for," he says. "If they can find a source they trust like Penn State and find what they need in two or three clicks, that's absolutely crucial. Penn State Extension is leaping forward into the future with these changes."

Roush notes that the younger generation, especially, expects the websites they use frequently to be simple to use. "I think today's farmers, the younger generation in particular, want to be able to get on their smartphones and get an answer," he says. "They're not always interested in getting in the car and going to talk to someone face to face or waiting for someone to come out to the farm. I believe there are times when face-to-face interaction is the best interaction, but more and more we see that farmers in their very busy lives want to go on their own time to their smartphone or computer and get information."

Ultimately, extension's goal for its website is to make it the "WebMD" of agriculture, a trusted place where anyone can go to ask any question about agriculture. "We're not there yet, but over time, that is our goal," says Hyde.

Online Courses

Along with the redesigned site, extension will unveil 35 new online courses, and plans to add many more in the near future. These new courses include, for example, Beef Production and Management; Food Safety and Sanitation for Food Manufacturers; Beekeeping 101; and Farm Biosecurity Best Practices for Contractors, Vendors, and Visitors. Along with the in-person courses taught at locations across Pennsylvania, the online courses will make it possible for even more people to access education.

"We have a lot of folks out there hiring people to work on farms and other agricultural businesses," says Hyde. "But the pool of skilled workers has shrunk and the training needs are growing. Extension now has the ability to widely deliver that training. Imagine being able to set new workers in front of a computer and train them how to properly sanitize and milk cows, and keep good milk quality and herd health while they're doing their job. I think that's going to be a great resource. And it's just one example of many."

Dan Eichenlaub, president of Eichenlaub, Inc., a landscape business, agrees. When asked about his need to train his employees, he says, "When you only have 50 employees who can use a particular training, it might be too high a cost per unit to produce it yourself. But if extension develops it and 5,000 people can use it, it's much more cost effective for me to pay for my employees to take that course." And, if it's online, he adds, "it's on demand for my employees. If their best time to learn is 8 o'clock at night when their kids are in bed, they can do that." In addition, Eichenlaub notes, "Penn State Extension is the trusted source. They're not trying to sell me a product or a certain technique that's going to enrich the pockets of the University."

Changes for Extension Educators

For extension educators, the organization's transition means they will no longer have to wear so many hats. In the past, they've been not only expert educators who led workshops and met one on one with customers in the field to troubleshoot problems, but they've also been graphic designers, web specialists, event planners, data analysts, and more.

"The educators will be more centrally supported by staff at University Park, so they can focus on what they're really good at, which is helping people," says Jon Emigh, associate director for marketing operations. In practice, this means that experts in online course creation will develop courses for the educators, help them to create videos and graphics, and assist them in maintaining customer information databases so they can send out targeted emails including relevant news and upcoming events.

In August 2016, Penn State announced a volunteer early retirement package to eligible employees. "Extension is losing more than half of its district directors," says Mary Wirth, director of College Relations in the College of Agricultural Sciences. "We're losing a lot of institutional knowledge across the college; people who have been really big contributors will be gone."

But the timing, which happens to coincide with the unveiling of the new extension, actually isn't so bad. Although extension will suffer from the loss of many of its valuable employees, it will gain new staff, and with them will come fresh ideas. Together, under the new extension, older employees and new ones will be organized into teams that prioritize customer service. With a new customer relations management system, the teams will gather information about what their customers need and want, and they will plan their programming and activities accordingly.

For example, the customer relations management system will enable extension educators to send out targeted announcements regarding a variety of topics. So, for instance, in the event of an avian influenza outbreak, extension could put a dot on a map, draw a circle around it, and notify everyone who owns poultry within the vicinity.

"All of these changes," says Wirth, "will help the college spend its resources more wisely." Indeed, streamlining and prioritizing resources is an important reason for the overhaul of extension. "During the economic turmoil of 2011, the college's state appropriation was reduced to 1999 levels, a cut of $10.5 million," she says. "There were significant layoffs; it was a wake-up call for many. We used that opportunity as a catalyst for significant change, to ensure we were relevant and an excellent investment in the future. So, we are changing the way we engage with our customers; we are increasing access; we are providing people with what they want. It's a very big change."

Carrie Bomgardner, marketing manager at AgChoice Farm Credit, for one, is delighted with the change. "Extension and Penn State have always been looked to for research on what's next with technology on the farm or with whatever kind of agribusiness you might have," she says. "Now we have the added benefit of having all that online at our fingertips. Not only do we have our local extension offices that may still be putting on the formal programs, but we can also look online for a quick read to find what we need."

What Will the New Extension Do for You?

Extension's new homepage will display the slogan, "Practical agriculture education you can trust." As Eichenlaub says, extension has always been a trusted source of information. What's new is the way the organization shares that information with customers. "It's about expanding our reach," says Emigh. "It's about giving our customers what they want, when they want it, and how they want it."

Day or night, at our place or yours, on the farm or in your kitchen, the new Penn State Extension is ready to serve you. So pick up the phone and call your local extension educator or log onto No matter how you reach out, we'll be there.

--Sara LaJeunesse