Jeff Dwyer - June 23, 2020, testimony

MSU Extension director Jeff Dwyer's June 23, 2020, testimony for the Michigan House Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education and Community Colleges.

Good morning Chairman VanSingel and subcommittee members. Thank you for your time and interest in hearing an update from MSU Extension and AgBioResearch and for welcoming me and Doug Buhler this morning. While so much remains the same for us since we presented last in early March, all of you know that so much has also changed. Today, we will highlight the impacts and our response to COVID-19.

Our job at Michigan State University Extension is to bring the science, programs and resources of a great land grant university to organizations, communities and individuals throughout the state. Our outreach and engagement is built on a local basis, thanks to more than 600 faculty and staff in nearly 100 offices across all 83 counties. Historically, most of those relationships have been maintained through in-person meetings, programs and other events, although our website at also averages 1M visitors per month.

Within six days of the initial Stay Home, Stay Safe Executive Order, we launched the Remote Learning and Resources website (, and our teams began modifying programming so they could present it in a digital format that would provide equal educational value right in people’s homes. This online space is a robust virtual one-stop-shop for everything MSU Extension has to offer online. It houses educational resources

  • to help parents keep their children on track with learning at home;
  • an extensive list of online programs for adults;
  • a calendar of virtual events;
  • educational videos;
  • relevant, responsive and evidence-based articles authored by MSU Extension’s vast network of experts;
  • resources for local governments and communities navigating the effects of the pandemic and more.

Some of our early successes focused on helping families and communities’ transition to the new normal.

  • A yoga class, presented by Zoom that our staff thought maybe 20 people would tune into turned into a co-presentation on Zoom and Facebook live with roughly 500 people logged on each day for 26 days to learn to breath and stretch as they adjusted to the new normal. Once yoga studios and gyms were able to catch up with technology, we discontinued the classes so our educator could focus on other things.
  • “Lunch & Learn Lectures” hosted by our equine educator gave youth a chance to learn more about horses. Though she planned on only offering one brief session to give young people something to do when schools were closed, her idea quickly gained steam. Thanks to popular demand, hundreds of youth expanded their knowledge of all things horse related on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays over the course of four weeks.
  • Our early efforts throughout the state were also focused on using our existing talent and resources to provide immediate assistance including providing access to Zoom and meeting facilitation for local governments that were find it difficult to convene online efficiently; donating N95 masks, face masks, and gloves to Gerber Hospital staff out of supplies remaining following Farm Safety Day; and, linking farmers to clinical mental health teletherapy services in collaboration with Pine Rest Mental Health Services as part of our growing emphasis on Farm Stress.

Within a few days we had other programming spooled up and ready to present digitally.

  • Staff members quickly pivoted from a face-to-face program offered in a few locations to a series of one-hour presentations called Adulting 101. Topics include things such as what to look for when renting, tips and tricks for easy cooking, how to keep your finances in order and the right way to do household tasks such as ironing and setting a table. The series attracted more than 3,000 participants and was recommended by school districts.
  • Cabin Fever Conversations became a highly popular series of 11 webinars via Zoom and Facebook Live designed to get people’s minds off of being cooped up inside and get them thinking about their garden spaces. Sessions focused on lighthearted but educational conversations about gardening featuring guests who discuss topics like seed saving, houseplants, pollinator health, community gardening and container gardening. The webinar’s success of more than 500 attendees per session has prompted organizers to continue programming during winter 2020.
  • Our food safety experts launched the Think Food Safety social media campaign. This series reaches about 50,000 people per week with food safety videos and live, virtual Q&A sessions for educators to answer food safety questions from the public. These sessions have attracted attendees from across the state and country, as well as internationally.
    • Our food safety expert in Muskegon County is an active part of a work team that produced several food-related bulletins when the virus first broke. Helping people deal with safe food handling when obtaining groceries, handling take-out safely and cleaning and sanitizing hard surfaces has received more than 10,000 views from our website alone.
    • In addition, our newly developed food safety online content from the same team has reached 21 counties, 44 states and 75 Michigan counties.
  • In response to unprecedented disruptions to supply chains, limited employee availability and increased human biosecurity needs, we launched the MSU Extension’s Rapid Response for Agriculture website. This site provides a single point for farmers to access resources aimed at keeping staff safe and how to best manage operations while still meeting consumer demands for a fresh, safe food supply. MSU Extension educators are also assisting farmers through the growing season by meeting with them on virtual platforms through online meetings and webinars, many of which are recorded so farmers can view the meetings in a time that is convenient for them, allowing greater access to MSU Extension programming than ever before.

Perhaps one of our more publicized projects was converting our Food Processing and Innovation Center (FPIC) to a PPE and decontamination powerhouse. As you know, overloaded hospitals created an increased need for PPE. As shortages loomed, the ability to reuse these materials became increasingly valuable. On April 1, FPIC began using our Marlen Spiral Oven to decontaminate N95 masks. This process is currently awaiting U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval and has been openly shared with other entities that wish to utilize it. 

  • Some of our outreach efforts included collecting and donating PPE to local entities. For example, we donated N95 masks left from our Farm Safety Field Day to the Gerber campus of Spectrum Health in Fremont.
  • On the youth front, Michigan 4-H’ers were rallied and began independently sewing homemade cloth face coverings and donating them to protect the public, essential workers and members of the healthcare workforce. By mid-April, Michigan 4-H centralized these local efforts and created a goal to donate over 5,000 face coverings through the Michigan 4-H Mask Project.
  • We are also working closely with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. Our district directors are very aware that success of businesses under “the new normal” necessitates access to PPE. Through their Pure Michigan Business Connect Platform, MEDC is linking companies that need PPE with suppliers. We have been contacting businesses that have submitted their needs to help connect with suppliers – essentially, helping them broker the deal. To date, we’ve communicated with more than 3,000 organizations across Michigan from dental offices to libraries and every type in between. 
  • Many of our programs have grown during the pandemic. Heroes to Hives, the largest veteran ag training program in the country, has nearly 1000 veteran enrolled in the current training experience.  Learning to utilize online opportunities to reach important audiences while benefiting from in-person experiences where needed, will be an important part of the future of MSU Extension.

The last thing I want to mention this morning is local fairs. These annual events are often the lifeblood of communities throughout Michigan. When we made the difficult decision to modify, postpone or cancel all in-person 4-H programming through September, we knew it would impact local fairs—most of which rely on 4-H’ers for their exhibits and contests. We worked closely with the Michigan Association of Fairs and Exhibitions, and we did not take this decision lightly.

  • Instead, we created the Michigan 4-H Virtual Showcase and Auctions. These online fair-type experiences that allow youth to showcase their mastery of skills they've learned through 4-H, receive constructive feedback, be recognized for their many accomplishments, and auction their still/static and market animal projects. As of June 17, 30 counties are planning to convert their in-person event to a Virtual Showcase and Auction. I can confidently say that we expect more to jump on board.

As we experience a variety of transitions related to COVID-19 in the coming months and years, the need for MSU Extension will be greater, not less. Being embedded in communities means that we can immediately respond to emerging needs ranging from agriculture to youth and health to community development. We are an important resource in a rapidly changing environment.

Our embeddedness in communities and the ability to respond to immediate and emerging needs in areas ranging from agriculture, to youth, and health to community development, make us an important resource in a rapidly changing environment. Your support for MSU Extension of roughly $30M represents about one-third of our overall budget and directly impacts our ability to meet the needs of Michigan residents.

An interesting note from all of this is that being forced to work remotely and focus on online programming has given several of our staff members an opportunity to do something they have wanted to do for a long time … convert their in-person programming to a digital format so they can reach more people. This doesn’t mean that we will abandon face-to-face programming. That will never be our goal. We know that digital formats don’t work for everybody. But if we can expand our reach and help more people incorporate the evidence-based learning from a major university into their homes, families, businesses and communities, we’re going to do that. One recent example is the collaboration between MSU Extension and AgBioResearch on Field Days, daylong experiences that we typically hold in-person on farms throughout the state and have now moved to a digital format.  The Wheat Field Day was held on June 10 and was attended by nearly 150 people online.  The feedback was excellent.

Did you find this article useful?