Monthly Archives: April 2010

Random Thoughts on the Value of Serendipity

Cooperative Extension’s working knowledge model is as much serendipitous as it is purposeful —one of the reasons why I’m more convinced than ever that the Extension model still has a valuable role to serve in the future, despite all of the nay saying.

Working as an Extension news and public affairs professional in the Deep South, I’ve seen firsthand how advances in cotton entomology have provided an ongoing testimony to the value of this serendipitous approach.

Cotton farming has moved ever closer to a sustainable farming model — one that uses pesticides far more judiciously than it did a few decades ago.   But this has not been by design.

Money — namely widespread concerns among farmers about the lack of it — is what moved cotton farming ever closer to a sustainable model.   Back to that word again — serendipity.

Farmers were concerned that numerous seasonal applications of pesticides to control crop pests threatened their long-term economic viability.

However, cotton research revealed at the time that well-timed applications were not only more effective against pests but also could possibly enable farmer to reduce the number of chemical applications, thereby reducing operating expenses.

To impart these ideas to growers, the University of Arkansas devised what ultimately proved to be an ingenious concept — cotton scouting.  Working with their local Extension agents, cotton growers pooled their resources to hire scouts to monitor their field for insects throughout the growing season.  The scouts’ careful monitoring of these fields enabled growers to apply chemicals far more judiciously.  As a result, application costs decreased.

Cotton farmers’ manic desire to reduce operating costs also led to the adoption of the Boll Weevil Eradication Program and the subsequent adoption of transgenic cotton varieties engineered for pest resistance —both of which have contributed to steep reductions in pesticide applications.  All of these strides have had the unintended effect of moving farmers ever closer to a sustainable farming model.

One of the values of an open society, such as the United States, is that it provides an environment in which free inquiry and discovery yields a host of unanticipated benefits — serendipity by any other name. Cooperative Extension, particularly the role it has played in cost-effective farming, testifies to the astonishing effects that typically follow when these conditions are in place.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: Cooperative Extension should not feel threatened by the emerging knowledge economy and particularly by the wikinomical approaches to knowledge generation and transfer that have accompanied it.  In many respects, we anticipated this approach more than a 100 years ago.

Instead of fearing the advent of this new age, we should welcome it — not just welcome it but embrace it.  Most important of all, we should identify the myriad of ways in which our unique experiences with collaborative knowledge can enhance it.  As Extension educators, we have as much to teach as we have to learn.

Yes, I’m remain more convinced than ever that Extension’s working knowledge model will continue to serve our clients, albeit in a form that makes greater use of social media tools, especially wikinomical-related methods of knowledge transfer.