Monthly Archives: August 2009

What Cooperative Extension Sorely Needs: More Public Intellectuals

What has become of America’s scientific vanguard — those people who helped inspire and create a technological civilization that, up to now, at least, has been the envy of the world?

That’s a good question.   As a matter of fact, for Extension educators, it’s not just a good question, it’s a paramount question.  For almost a century, we have comprised a vital component of that vanguard.

Why is this question now so paramount? Because as sound science rapidly loses ground to junk science, Cooperative Extension educators are lining up on what many Americans, however unjustly, consider to be the wrong side of the debate.

You’ve seen it, I’ve seen it — virtually everyone employed in Cooperative Extension work has seen the growing disdain, particularly among many of the nation’s public intellectuals, for any farming method deemed “unnatural,” whether this involves tilling or applying herbicides or insecticides.

Among ordinary Americans, this thinking has taken on an almost conspiratorial hue.  Case in point:  Commenting on my recent online newspaper column on the economic challenges associated with raising free-range chicken, one respondent pointed to a USDA “conspiracy” against small-scale growers —one in which Cooperative Extension purportedly serves an active, conscious agent.

Today, New York Times blogger Tom Kuntz weighed into this increasingly contentious but woefully underreported debate.

Among other prominent figures in this debate, Kuntz cited Missouri farmer Blake Hurst, who has worked on his family farm for more than 30 years.  In response to an Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Hurst summarized the pro-farming side of the debate:

Much of his argument comes down to: beware the law of unintended agricultural consequences. Farming without herbicides means more tilling and more erosion. Let turkeys roam outside and they’re prone to attack by weasels, or drowning by their own upturned beaks in downpours. Freeing massive hogs from confinement crates means they sometimes crush their piglets to death, or eat them right after they’re born.

Anyone associated with commercial agriculture understands this.  Farming functions on the basis of common sense rather on than some malicious intent to defraud consumers. 

Is there still a place for organic food production? Yes, absolutely.  But without these common sense practices, which involve everything from herbicide and pesticide application to livestock vaccination, we would be deprived of a food production and distribution system that enables less than 2 percent of the population to feed the remaining 98 percent with a measure of efficiency and safety than earlier generations would have found mindboggling.

It’s an important, if not vital, point, though one that is increasingly failing to get through to public intellectuals and ordinary Americans like.

And, frankly, I think it implies a lapse, if not an outright failure, on our part.  Communicating these sorts of complex issues in a way that public intellectuals and ordinary people can grasp is a task which could — should — be entrusted to Cooperative Extension educators.

Indeed, from the very beginning, Extension agents and specialists have functioned as scientific vanguards, showing people how to put scientific knowledge to practical use. It’s one of the greatest strengths of Cooperative Extension, though one that has never been cultivated to its fullest potential.  It’s time that it was.

We need more Blake Hursts.

Here is my suggestion: that we start cultivating the talents of our best scientific educators. The most promising of those educators should be developed into nothing less than public intellectuals — people who know how to identify and capitalize on opportunities to advance a public understanding of and appreciation for sound science.

Some of the skills with which they should be equipped: how to develop and write effective blogs; how to formulate and write op-eds; and how to communicate in a manner that not only is readily grasped but that also serves as an impetus for action.

We must create a vanguard of public intellectuals capable of serving at the state and national levels. And we should cultivate and promote them in the same manner with the Division I universities do star athletes.

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Reports of the Demise of Cooperative Extension Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

An op-ed posted this weekend in the New York Times’s online edition is making its rounds among Alabama Cooperative Extension System professionals.

And well it should.  It speaks volumes about the cultural and economic eddies occurring around us and how Cooperative Extension should navigate within this turbid sea.

Op-ed writer Dan Barber rightly observes that Americans are demonstrating a growing fascination with raising their own food, particularly produce. 

Even so, this year’s mad dash to the garden has produced a few unintended and unfortunate consequences.   For example, in their zeal to begin raising homegrown produce, many gardening novices have turned to retail outlets for their starter plants — places such as Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart.

Even as they struggle to opt out of the globalized economic system for which they increasingly express mistrust, they continue to look toward many of the icons of this system to buy their starter tomato plants. But as they are finding, a substantial number of these plants, which were bred by large-scale operations, were infected with late blight. 

 Sobering Irony

All of this makes for sobering irony, writes Barber:

…the explosion of home gardeners — the very people most conscious of buying local food and opting out of the conventional food chain — has paradoxically set the stage for the worst local tomato harvest in memory.

Barber believes government has a role to play in helping these aspiring gardeners find their way through this confusion:

For all the new growers out there, what’s missing is not the inspiration, it’s the expertise, the agricultural wisdom and technical knowledge passed on from generation to generation. Congress recognized the need for this kind of support almost 100 years ago when it passed the Smith-Lever Act, creating a network of cooperative extension services in partnership with land-grant universities. Agricultural extension agents were sent to farms to share the latest technological advances, introducing new varieties of vegetables and, yes, checking the fields for disease.

Barber is hitting on something highly significant.  Indeed, his views comport closely with an argument I’ve been making among fellow Extension professionals:  The growing fascination with gardening and the cultural, social and economic factors that have prompted it present Cooperative Extension with an opportunity for organizational resurgence.

 Are the Wheels Coming Off?

And this involves more than just a fascination with gardening.  Among other factors, the gardening revival also reflects an increasingly pervasive view among many in society —not only among so-called kooky people — that things are not quite right in our world.   

Some have even begun to wonder if the wheels are coming off the highly sophisticated, increasingly globalized technological civilization that has emerged within the past few decades.

Yes, I’ll concede that even making such a statement may render me suspect in some quarters.  But I’m not the only one.  None other the best-selling author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman observed recently that 2008 may be remembered as the year humanity hit an impenetrable wall, when it reached the painful but unavoidable realization that the planet’s resources are unable to sustain the economic growth model that has been constructed over the last half century.

Some have already begun describing this event as “the great disruption.” Whatever the case, Friedman believes humanity may have reached a crossroad, one that will be remembered for decades, if not centuries, to come:

We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese.

We can’t do this anymore.

Closely associated with this stark realization is a mounting disdain for another facet of the current economic model: so-called discount culture, of which retail outlets such as Wal-Mart are cited as iconic examples.  A Publisher’s Weekly review of Cheap: the High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppell Shell underscores this growing disdain:

That cycle of consumption seems harmless enough, particularly since we live in a country where there are plenty of cheap goods to go around. But in her lively and terrifying book “Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture,” Ellen Ruppel Shell pulls back the shimmery, seductive curtain of low-priced goods to reveal their insidious hidden costs. Those all-you-can-eat Red Lobster shrimps may very well have come from massive shrimp-farming spreads in Thailand, where they’ve been pumped up with antibiotics and possibly tended by maltreated migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam. The made-in-China toy train you bought your kid a few Christmases ago may have been sprayed with lead paint — and the spraying itself may have been done by a child laborer, without the benefit of a protective mask.

But it’s expressed in other ways too: Peak oil theory — the fear that oil reserves will effectively become depleted within the next few years — and mounting concerns about deforestation, chronic water shortages and overfishing.

I’m not interested in debating the relative merits of these views. In another forum, I would call most or even all of them into question. 

Nevertheless, all of these factors hold major implications, mostly positive, for the Cooperative Extension mission.

Yes, we and our audiences sometimes talk about Cooperative Extension being a little old-fashioned and behind the times — a little stodgy.  Now more than ever, many people, fed up with what they perceive to be the shallow glitz, if not shaky foundations, of the current global economic model, will be become more favorably disposed toward Cooperative Extension and other entities perceived as offering lifestyle alternatives such as home gardening and canning. 

I believe that — passionately.

Other Factors

Other factors playing out on a global scale also hold fascinating implications for Extension.

An Aug. 10 article in the New York Times reported how Web 2.0 already is altering the ways schools deliver educational products to their students:

Textbooks have not gone the way of the scroll yet, but many educators say that it will not be long before they are replaced by digital versions – or supplanted altogether by lessons assembled from the wealth of free courseware, educational games, videos and projects on the Web.

Hundreds of universities around the world already use share and open-source courses.  Connexions, a non-profit open-source organization associated with Rice University, is providing open-source learning to schools.

What is stopping Extension, a movement that has both specialized and excelled in this type of informal, open-source learning, from doing likewise?

We talk a lot about Extension following the fast track to extinction.  But borrowing from Twain, reports of our impending demise have been greatly exaggerated.

I contend that a number of factors are currently in play that could figure prominently in a revivified  21st century Extension mission.  These include: a mounting concern among people regarding the implications of the current economic system; a growing desire among people to take control over basic necessities such as food; and an increasing inclination to experiment with nontraditional, albeit highly accessible, forms of Web 2.0-related learning. 

 By now, I hope you see the bigger picture: We’re potentially onto something — something big.  Our challenge will be determining how to allocate resources to meet these challenges.

Finding Our Groove in The Niche

Yes, I’ll concede that Chris Anderson may harbor some anti-media bias.

The editor-in-chief of Wired eschews terms such as newspaper and media because he considers them outmoded — relics of the last century. And speaking as a product of 20th century media training, I think Anderson is right — dead right. (See my previous diatribe on demassification for my rationale.)

Granted, there always will be a place for the kind of reporting that once distinguished traditional journalism, even as an increasingly greater share of online content is generated by amateurs. 

Even so, while some forms of traditional journalism will survive, they will be mixed up with the other information that is increasingly disseminated through social filters.   As Anderson says,

I read lots of articles from mainstream media but I don’t go to mainstream media directly to read it.  It comes to me, which is really quite common these days.  More and more people are choosing social filters for their news rather than professional filters.  We’re turning out television news, we’re turning out newspapers. And we still hear about the important stuff, it’s just that it’s not like this drumbeat of bad news.  It’s news that matters.  I figure by the time something gets to me it’s been vetted those I trust.  So the stupid stuff that doesn’t matter is not going to get to me.

Yes, it is a brave new world out there — and an intimating one too.  And this raises the question: What will this mean for organizations that have  felt more at home with older media – organizations such as  Cooperative Extension , which have traditionally looked to these older media to disseminate their messages? How will they manage to compete in a world with so many players offering so many products, whatever these happen to be?

I admit I remain an incorrigible pessimist about most things.  But on the subject of the online economy and Cooperative Extension’s place in it, I remain cautiously optimistic.

Why?

First, because this is one area in which our institutional mindset may work in our favor. 

As Anderson points out, most people blog for nonmonetary reasons — either because they want to draw attention to themselves or because they feel a passion for what they write about.  Extension is teeming with legions of passionate educators, quite a few of whom also write well.  Put these two together — passion and a knack for expression— and you have the makings of several highly effective and competitive blogs. 

Second, as Anderson observes, the default price of the emerging online economy is zero.  Compared with the older, conventional economy, an astonishing share of the offerings is free.

Free is the force of gravity.  If we decide to resist it, then somebody else will compete with something that is free.  The marketplace follows the underlying economics. You can be free or you can compete with free. That’s the only choice there is. 

Until recently, people have generally assumed that anything free was low-rate compared to its priced counterpart.  The online economy is changing this.  And this change of mind ultimately may work to the distinct advantage of Cooperative Extension-related products and services.

Freeness may also benefit us in another way — the same way it already is aiding other public and private entities: by helping us better leverage our fee-based efforts.   

Anderson points out how private companies are learning to use free content to attract audiences.  They’ve learned it’s to their advantage not to charge for the most popular stuff.  Instead, they charge for the “niche stuff” that people are willing to pay for.

As I see it, Cooperative Extension administrators and educators should invest considerably more thought into how our most popular stuff, such as publications, videos and other materials, can be used to whet our audiences’ appetites for the more enriched, specialized forms of instruction — the “niche stuff,” which could include webinars, workshops and field days — the stuff for which they would gladly pay.