Monthly Archives: February 2010

The Deficit: A New Charge to Cooperative Extension Educators

Following my previous discussion about the looming deficit crisis and its implications, I’m sharing  a column that I mined this morning off Worldnet Daily, a conservative Web site.

To his immense credit, the writer, columnist and erstwhile presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, is speaking as an American rather than as a partisan political commentator.   His advice should be heeded by all public intellectuals and policy makers irrespective of their political convictions.

As Buchanan stresses, something must be done immediately to rein in our ballooning federal deficits.  Otherwise, the consequences will be dire: China’s decision last December to unload $45 billion of its $790 billion in T-bills is likely only a harbinger of the economic upheaval that could follow if a solution is not found, he says.

Even so, a workable solution seems more elusive than ever given the strong likelihood of the hardened political gridlock that will follow 2010 midterm elections, Buchanan says.

One thing is certain: The budget must — and ultimately will — be cut and one immediate consequence regardless of what forms the cuts take will be a reduced federal domestic presence for the foreseeable future. 

Laying gloom aside for a moment, I will say that in the aftermath of this reduced federal presence, grassroots, self-empowerment agencies such as Extension may be called upon to serve an invaluable role.

Actually, a number of factors in addition to the deficit likely contribute to this trend.  In the last couple of decades, policymakers —state and federal lawmakers as well as most municipal leaders — have been forced to rethink the way they serve their audiences. Many causes account for this change in thinking — advances in communications technologies, the rise of the global economy, declining tax bases and rapid social change, to name only a few.

Whatever the causes, the sort of top/down bureaucratic approach used throughout most of the last century to address domestic has been deemed unworkable, not only by conservatives but also by many centrist Third Way advocates, such as former President Bill Clinton and former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair.  The worsening deficit crisis will only work to underscore this reality, I believe. 

Indeed, these trends already have given rise to a new domestic policy approach — one built on a foundation of dialogue and empowerment between the various levels of government and the people they serve.  In a sharp departure from earlier forms of domestic policy, individuals and groups traditionally served by domestic programs are being called upon to address change directly rather than waiting for things happen to them.

This is why I’m convinced that Extension is especially well equipped to fill a larger role in the future.

We have the skill sets to match these new policy requirements: We are knowledge enablers who use dialogue and personal empowerment to serve our diverse audiences.   Along with knowledge, we provide a practical understanding of how this knowledge can be used to improve our clients’ lives. 

Yes, I believe Cooperative Extension educators have a new charge to keep in the 21st century.   The newfound appreciation for dialogue and empowerment that inevitably will follow this crisis presents us with a unique opportunity to show how our traditional emphasis on practical knowledge is as value today as it was in the early 20th century.

The “Lean Years:” A New Mission for Cooperative Extension?

A lot of what I do as a member of Alabama Extension’s Marketing Team is to think out loud, usually after digesting an article or op-ed about a topic that raises major implications for the Cooperative Extension mission.

The New York Times’s David Brooks’s most recent op-ed is one example — a piece appropriately named “The Lean Years.”

Writing about this severe recession, he paints an especially gloomy picture of the years of hard slogging that lie ahead for millions of Americans, particularly men and young people, before some semblance of normality returns.

He cites an essay in The Atlantic, which reports that almost a fifth of all U.S. men between 25 and 54 are without jobs — the highest such figure since the labor bureau began collecting and reporting these numbers in 1948.

America’s young people are also being disproportionally affected by this downturn.  Brooks cites a gloomy statistic from a previous severe recession:  College grads who entered the job market in 1981 earned 25 percent less than those who entered in more prosperous periods.  And this earnings gap persists for decades.  Over their lifetimes, recession kids will earn approximately $100,000 less than those hired during more auspicious periods.

Brooks fears that these trends will exact a heavy social cost among men and young people alike.

Among chronically unemployed men, this effect is often reflected by enhanced levels of alcoholism and child abuse, with millions of unemployed men sustaining what Brooks describes as “debilitating blows to their identity.”

Young people are also psychologically altered, less likely to switch jobs later in their career, even when greater opportunity beckons.

The burgeoning federal deficits will only contribute to further fraying. Deficits will command roughly 11 percent of the country’s entire economic input this year, leaving little room for expanded domestic initiatives. 

As Brooks observes, the social fabric, which has served throughout U.S. history to mitigate the effects of hard times, has begun to fray.   

These hard realties present Cooperative Extension educators with a challenge.

As one long-tenured Extension county coordinator related to me several months ago, Cooperative Extension has served a useful role within the last century providing people, often people on the margins of society, with basic skills to cope in difficult times.  The coming lean years, which will be characterized by both chronic unemployment and underemployment as well as fewer federal domestic initiatives, present Americans with a unique set of challenges  — challenges that Cooperative Extension System is especially well-equipped to meet.

Working through its 4-H youth empowerment, home gardening, nutrition and community develop programs, Cooperative Extension educators are poised to build and new and enduring legacy of self-empowerment.  How?  By providing the most hard-pressed among us with the vital coping skills they require to endure the next few years.  By empowering them, we also lend a hand in helping restore this nation’s vital, but frayed, social fabric.

Beyond Search Engines: The Cooperative Extension Educator as Catalyst

Behind every early adopter is a catalyst, quite often a Cooperate Extension educator.

This has been the case from the beginning of formal Cooperative Extension work.  Seaman Knapp’s work with demonstration plots and Booker T. Washington’s introduction of Jesup Wagons serve as two of the earliest and most enduring examples of our longstanding role as catalysts.

We should never lose sight of this role or the value of it, especially amidst all this talk of Internet search engines and the dire threat they pose to the Extension educator’s traditional role as knowledge provider.

Granted, there is cause for concern: If presented by her English instructor with an assignment to write about some horticulture topic, my 16-year-old daughter undoubtedly would refer to her laptop rather than to her local Extension agent or Master Gardening for background information.

Yes, Internet search engines are steadily eroding the image of the Extension educator as an immediate source of knowledge — that’s the bad news.  The good news is that our longstanding role as catalyst is far from dead.

It’s one thing to impart knowledge; it’s quite another to act on it.

Just ask Beau Brodbeck and Eve Brantley, two young but seasoned Extension educators.

While trained in different fields, the work they do on a day-to-day basis is remarkably similar.  In terms of their disciplines, they are walking encyclopedias — effective knowledge providers by every standard of measure.  But they are also catalysts.  Like any effective Extension professional, they perceive their most important role as sparking collective action.

What they’ve learned through their own experiences speaks volumes about how Extension educators are viewed and valued in the future.

Brodbeck, an Extension urban forestry educator based in southwest Alabama, says he’s had little difficulty garnering agreement from community leaders about the value of trees.  After all, who doesn’t like trees?   Based on his experience, though, liking trees and adopting practices that promote them are two entirely different things, especially, as in the case of cash-strapped communities, where cost is involved.

Despite his immense knowledge of urban forestry, Brodbeck has learned that he’s valued more for demonstrating time and again the practical effects of his knowledge, showing communities how trees  secure long-term cost savings by reducing storm run-off and water pollution.

He’s learned that facts alone aren’t enough: They must be marshaled in a way that compels community leaders to act.

Brantley, an Extension resources specialist and Auburn University assistant professor of agronomy and soils, has had similar experiences encouraging municipal leaders to introduce sustainable water management practices into their communities.

“When I started work, there already were bookcases full of water quality and storm water management-related texts,” she says.

“The science has been there and continues to develop.”

Like Brodbeck, she’s learned the value of “buy-in.” Success in her job rest every bit as much on how well she convinces one or more influential people in communities to buy into the desired change — early adopters by any other name.

Brantley readily concedes that her lesson are not new: They originated with the pioneering work of sociologist Everett Rogers, who not only popularized the concept of early adopters and but also demonstrated their role in transmitting new ideas.

These are old lessons, yes, but lessons that nonetheless underscore an essential but egregiously underappreciated fact:  The role we serve as catalysts remains one of our greatest assets but also one that is indispensible to quality of life, if not the long-term success, of every community in America.

A local mayor, council or city planner may be equipped with all the information available through search engines, but it often requires a catalyst to provide the incentive to act on this knowledge — someone equipped not only to put the issue into sharper perspective but also to make a compelling case for change.

For this reason, the enduring value of catalysts should never be discounted.

Cooperative Extension’s Finest Hour?

Even as Cooperative Extension faces the worst budgetary cutbacks in its almost century-long history, it is being called on to do the unthinkable:  To help farming reinvent itself by reducing its environmental footprint without eroding the high level of efficiency that characterizes the current model.

Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this year, Professor John Beddington, chief science adviser to the U.K. government, put this challenge into grim perspective, stressing that  global agriculture will have to produce 50 percent more food by 2030 to feed the growing population, projected to be 9.5 billion by mid-century.

Farmers are being called on to feed billions more, despite a future of drastically reduced supplies of fossil fuels and water resources — two resources critical to the success of modern agriculture within the last century.

That is the irony — and the opportunity — we face as Cooperative Extension educators.

For their part, British policy makers have already begun exploring ways to build a farm model that incorporates both sustainability and efficiency.

Stressing the need for Britain to grow more of its food while reducing the emission of greenhouse gases, Hilary Benn, the United Kingdom’s secretary of state for the environment, outlined the first new British agricultural policy in decades, one that possibly may offer insight into the kind of global farming model that eventually may emerge.

“We need to produce more food.  We need to do it sustainably. And we need to make sure what we eat safeguards our health,” he said in announcing the policy.

Benn said British consumers have a role to play by demanding greener food from retailers and by wasting less, and, equally significant, by growing more of their own food and developing local markets for these homegrown products.

He and other British policymakers believe this strategy would enhance community spirit as well as physical and community health.

But will it also secure what Beddington and other scientists wish to achieve within the next few decades: creating a farming market that is both sustainable and efficient enough to feed 3 billion more people?

To be fair, in addition to calling for expanding homegrown food production and local farm markets, many leading British researchers and policy makers also concede that that cutting-edge science will have an even more prominent role to play.

For his part, Beddington says that feeding the emerging world population will require production of more crops on less land and greater use of emerging technologies, especially the genetic modification of food and nanotechnology.

How these competing objectives ultimately will be balanced out is uncertain.  What is virtually certain is that some farming model that incorporates cost-efficiency and sustainability will emerge.  

Daunting as it is, this challenge presents us Extension educators with an immense opportunity, one that far surpasses the challenge we faced roughly a hundred years ago introducing mechanized farming practices to tens of thousands of family farms.

The important reality to bear in mind — one that we should proclaim to our clients and stakeholders frequently and unashamedly — is that no other public or private entity is as equipped to help our farmers build this new model.  Yes, public and private researchers have a critical role to play, but only we are equipped to provide the nation’s farmers with the big picture — and by big picture, I mean the complete set of skills and altered thinking required to make this transition.

Yes, as cloudy as the Cooperative Extension future often seems, we nonetheless have a vital role to play in the future — one that very well could be prove to be our finest hour.