Two recent incidents underscored to me why there is still plenty of cause for optimism in Cooperative Extension.
The first involved a visit to the Slap Happy Farm in the tiny north Alabama hamlet of Snead. The owners of that farm may turn out to be as slap happy in fact as in name if the water rainwater collection system installed on their poultry operations secures tens of thousands of dollars in utility savings within the next 15 years.
Poultry farming now days is all about cost savings. Routine costs such as utilities are working like corrosive acid on growers’ profit margins. Gene Simpson and Jim Donald, two Alabama Extension poultry house efficiency experts, have understood that for a long time. For the last few years they have looked far and wide for a cost-effective rainwater collection system that enables growers to reap thousands of dollars savings in water-use costs.
Their chance encounter at an international poultry convention with a company specializing in rainwater collection changed everything. With money secured from partners such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service and local RC&Ds, the two worked with the company to develop a prototype collection system on Slappy Happy Farm —one that has the potential of changing poultry production not only in Alabama but throughout the southeast.
Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the state a handful of Extension educators — Ken Kelly, Josh Elmore and Buck Farrior — undertook a similar kind of project on behalf of cattle producers. Much like their counterparts in the poultry industry, cattle producers face the enormous challenge of containing routine operating costs — in their case, the rising costs associated with pastureland fertilizer and herbicide applications. With money provided from the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association and 50-cent Checkoff, these educators are borrowing a page from row-crop farmers, showing cattle producers how using GPS technology with these applications has the potential of radically reducing costs.
What is it about these two projects that provides such cause for optimism? The fact that neither of these innovations would have occurred without the active involvement of Extension educators.
We hear talk of how emerging information technology has the potential of rendering Cooperative Extension System work obsolete over the next few years. Frankly, I don’t see it. Granted, emerging technology will inevitably force our educators to evolve. But in one significant respect, I perceive our educators as possessing an enormous advantage over search engines and other expressions of this so-called third replicator: Our role as catalysts.
Yes, people are privy to an enormous amount of information generated by the search engines and other facets of the Internet, but Extension educators are demonstrating time and again that this information has to be acted upon to be valuable.
Knowledge alone often isn’t enough: It typically has to be put into context. Dots must be connected; big pictures painted; enthusiasm generated.
Extension educators still have an critical role to play in translating this practical knowledge into knowledge that secures meaningful changes in people’s lives — what I’ve come to describe as working knowledge. I should add that their role involves not only translating but also sparking the vital connections that secure these changes.
Make that an indispensable role.
Extension educators are catalysts — a role that should never be undervalued or discounted.
That’s why I remain so optimistic about Extension work.