PART of Willie Gibson's job entails driving across the backroads of central Vermont making visits.Farm visits, that is. As an agriculture extension agent from the University of Vermont, Mr. Gibson meets with dairy farmers to talk about different farming techniques. He offers ideas and strategies, ranging from how they can improve their farm as a business to better ways to graze their cows. Gibson is one of thousands of cooperative extension agents in nearly every corner, hamlet, and hollow of the United States who serve as a link between the land-grant universities and the rural and urban communities. The extension system - set up in 1914 to bring the newest research information from the university to the community - has been a presence in nearly all of the 3,000-plus US counties. At one time or another, many farmers, ranchers, low-income families, and women have depended on an agriculture agent or home economist to provide them with advice and information about the latest technological advances. Young people in 4-H programs run by agriculture extension services have learned leadership skills through demonstrations and winning ribbons at fairs. But many extension systems are facing their most challenging times as university budget cuts and public demand for different services force them to shelve some traditional practices and restructure their programs. At the University of Vermont (UVM), for example, a long-term erosion of funds combined with the university's recent fiscal problems has forced the university to trim the extension staff by 30 percent. The down-sizing means extension agents will be based in five regions, not in every county. Other states with hard-hit economies have faced similar or greater cuts: * At the University of Georgia, extension spending was sliced by 28 percent. * The University of Massachusetts has eliminated 50 percent of its extension agents over the past two years. * At Iowa State University, a 12 percent decrease in funding is part of what is prompting the extension system to refocus its priorities. "I think it's maybe good [that extension systems are undergoing changes] because I think it's going to make us better and more efficient," says Barry Stryker, a 23-year veteran agent of the University of Vermont. "We're going to have to be if we're going to survive." Lavon Bartel, associate director of UVM's extension system, says extension systems are focusing more on issues and social problems, rather than representing the traditional areas of agriculture, home economics, and 4-H. Now agents and programs deal with teenage suicide and pregnancy, environmental problems, and family economics. Jerry DeWitt, director to agricultural extension at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, says he plans to have extension agents cover larger areas, be better trained, and provide more team approaches to problems. The traditional 4-H program that focused mainly on agriculture will have more of an urban flair. Instead of meeting people one-on-one, the extension service is looking at using electronic media more as a way to deliver some of the programs quickly and to a specific audience. "There's been a shift in the client base, what the customers are asking for, what they want," Dr. DeWitt says. "We've got to do a better job of listening to what the problems are and what could be the solutions as opposed to, 'I'm the university, and I'm going to solve your problem. Part of the impetus to restructure the extension system occurred in 1987 when the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) set forth new directions to ensure that extension systems were relevant and flexible to deal with the issues and changing dynamics of the US, says Myron Johnsrud, administrator of the USDA extension service, which oversees the cooperative extension system. Extension systems get about 30 percent of their funds from the federal level; states, and in most instances, local governments, help make up the difference.