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.

4 responses to “What Cooperative Extension Sorely Needs: More Public Intellectuals

  1. While not completely disregarding what Blake Hurst has to say since he is speaking to the lack of understanding of what happens on the ground in farming operations, there is scientific research showing that organic agriculture can reduce the soil erosion on farms due to soil building activities (cover crops, compost additions, etc.) that are required under federal law. So again here is another example of added complexity in that no herbicides does not have to equal more erosion.

    Farming is so unique to the situation and the context under which it is performed, and this requires a high level of understanding which most in the public do not grasp. This is where I think these scientific educators that your are advocating for can really help. Great stuff!

  2. “Organic” seems to mean many things anymore, but I’m with Hurst too. The law of unintended consequences is a mighty force. No-till with herbicides **is** relatively environmentally friendly IMO.

    No herbicides? Our area will be able to feed Greece, that’s for sure. http://is.gd/2ow1E

  3. Greg,
    By “organic” I talking about the federally regulated farming practice. Check out eOrganic’s article on eXtension to learn more about what organic certification requires by law for crop and livestock farms and processing facilities; http://www.extension.org/article/18735

    Organic farming does produce yields on par with conventional systems and actually improves yield in extreme weather years thereby transferring stability to the farming system from the increase in organic matter levels in the soil. For a yield study check out this report from the ARS http://rubyurl.com/Z3vH

    Not trying to turn this into a organic vs. conv. debate, but there is a LOT of science being produced about organic farming these days that I think a lot of folks just don’t know about yet since it is so new. I try not to put too much emphasis on the word organic and focus more on farming practices that improve soil health and quality, and there is research that shows this can be improved in no-till herbicide systems as well. http://rubyurl.com/Yuae

  4. Thanks for the links, John.

    This sounds like a great opportunity for Extension to provide “how-to” information. Land-Grant field trials are intended for such data gathering. If I were farming, I would have a *very* hard time without chemicals or substantial tillage. Maybe this new research will change that.

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