Yes, we Extension educators take pride in the role we serve as purveyors of research-based knowledge. But from the very beginning of our history, there has always been an intangible, highly nuanced quality associated with our outreach work.
The most successful Extension educators, particularly agricultural and livestock agents, have succeeded because they have invested considerable time observing and interacting closely with the people they serve. In time, this investment produces a singular product: an Extension educator who posses an intuitive graps of his or her clients’ needs.
Dr. Paul Mask, an Alabama Extension administrator, says this is the reason why social media, while an emerging outreach method worthy of adoption, will never fully supplant traditional high-touch Extension outreach methods.
The most successful adopters of social media techniques within Extension are testaments to that fact, Mask says.
They have succeeded because they already have excelled in traditional face-to-face outeach work.
Mask, who started his career as an grain crops specialist working closely with growers, says this remains especially true among agents who work with row-crop farmers and commercial cattle producers.
“As people trying to make a living, these producers want to be assured that Extension agents know what they’re doing – that they are fully in command of their subject matter,” he says.
Mask cites Amy Winstead, an Extension precision agriculture educator in the Tennessee Valley, as one of Extension’s most successful social media adopters. But she has succeeded largely through the contacts she has established through traditional outreach work,he says.
“For most commercial row-crop and livestock producers, the image of an Extension agent sitting behind a desk blogging and tweeting at the exclusion of everything else just doesn’t appeal to them,” Mask says.
But this kind of approach isn’t tenable to start with, he says, because the nature of Extension work involves full engagement with clients.
“In the case of row-crop farming, for example, agents have to be out there helping producers with real-world problems because that’s the only way that they can become fully adept at solving those problems,” Mask says.
“Quite often the solution involves sitting in a combine cab and toubleshooting until the problem is solved.”
One especially valuable role Extension educators have served over the last century is helping farmers and other clients see what is coming down the proverbial pike, Mask says, adding that this kind of insight is acquired only after years of close observation of and interaction with clients.
Mask says he gained an even deeper appreciation for this fact while he worked to introduce precision agricultural techniques to producers beginning in the 1990s.
“In the beginning, precision farming wasn’t on most farmers’ radars, but because of our agents were willing to work one on one with them to underscore the value of it to their farming operation, they quickly grasped its benefits.”
Mask says there is a lesson here for aspiring social media adopters.
“We can augment our outreach efforts with social media, but high touch is high touch.”
“Our most successful social media users have succeeded because they already are high touch,” he says. “Their blogs and other social media products are simply a distillation of all the insights they’ve gained through close interaction with their clients.”