A Glance Backward, A Step Forward

Yes, I hear it all the time: Cooperative Extension faces some of the most challenging times in our history, and meeting these challenges will require us to look forward rather than backward.

Valid advice, to be sure.

But at least one milestone of Alabama Extension history deserves a backward glance.  This year marks the 50 anniversary of Alabama cotton scouting — a massive effort that has involved generations of agents, farmers and aspiring college graduates and  a chapter of Extension history that serves as one of the most fitting and moving testimonies to the genius that Cooperative Extension work was and continues to be.

Cotton scouting bespeaks the genius of Cooperative Extension work in so many ways: our peculiarly American penchant for improvisation and pragmatics; our willingness to take risks; our readiness to work across organizational and disciplinary boundaries when the need arises; and our ability to bring research-based knowledge to bear over long stretches of time on what initially seem like intractable problems.

And an intractable problem this was: Southern farmers had been up against the recalcitrant boll weevil for decades — an effort that required the application of a virtual arsenal of pesticides, which was expensive and, to the growing dismay of researchers, possibly harmful to the environment.

But researchers had also discovered that farmers could reduce the levels of pesticide use through well-timed applications.

The challenge was not only to drive this important new insight home to cotton producers but also to develop a system by which they could determine the best times to apply these chemicals.

This required careful monitoring of fields to determine when post-populations had attained levels that required treatment.   

Still, the challenged remained how — how to find the time to monitor cotton fields for insect infestation when farmers faced even more pressing demands.

University of Arkansas educators eventually came up with an almost deceptively simple concept, which came to be known as cotton scouting.  

Working with their local county Extension agent, cotton growers would pool their resources to hire someone to monitor their fields through the cotton season.  In the vast majority of cases, these monitors – cotton scouts as they were later called — turned out to be graduate and undergraduate students at the state land-grant university.

It provided to be a win/win scenario both for the growers and the students: Farmers secured dedicated scouts for the entire growing season, while the students acquired a summer job, which typically generated enough funds to cover tuition and many college expenses throughout the next academic year.

In addition to enabling hundreds of college students to complete their undergraduate and, in some cases, their graduate educations, cotton scouting also helped thousands of farmers across the South reap substantial savings in chemical costs — a factor that also produced lasting benefits to the environment.

We Extension professionals talk a lot about how the radically changed knowledge landscape of the 21st century will require a new kind of educator equipped with the requisite skills to navigate around and compete on this new terrain.  Without a doubt, this is true.

But as we acquire and perfect these new skills, a glance or two back at organizational milestones such as cotton scouting is essential, if only to underscore the importance of never losing sight of the core values that have defined — and always will define — Cooperative Extension work: our ability to improvise, to forge partnerships and to change with the times.

And occasional glance backward reminds us of who we are.  That’s not a bad thing.

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