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.

Advertisements

3 responses to “Reports of the Demise of Cooperative Extension Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

  1. Great article. Yes there are opportunities being presented to regain relevance and trust in unprecedented ways.

    “What is stopping Extension, a movement that has both specialized and excelled in this type of informal, open-source learning, from doing likewise?” The first thing stopping us is our copyright policies. We use all-right-reserved in almost all instances. We have not yet _joined_ the open-education movement in any meaningful way. This has to be fixed.

    Kevin

  2. There are two main thoughts here that are both important. First, for the issue of resource depletion, there is no doubt this is a serious issue. When the world advances (India, China, S. America, etc.) to use the resources at the rate of the US and Western Europe, this is going to put a very high strain on world resources. $140 oil is a small view through that window. Historically, we have been able to offset this growth with technology. In many areas, we will meet these challenges (however, due to limited leadership there will be much pain). The question – can we meet these without destroying our standard of living.

    The other area is real time global information. The challenge here is how do we know which information is true? There is no doubt that there are needs for centralized vetting portals for global information. For the agricultural world, extension is a great portal.

  3. Lots to think about here!

    I think Kevin is right on the mark–if I could have easy access to the thousands of wonderful Extension pubs online, free, as PDFs or other media–that would be wonderful.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s