Advice to the President, Lessons for Cooperative Extension

Two points David Brooks raised today in discussing President Obama’s political prospects following the mid-term elections not only made a deep impression on me but also raise major implications for the future of the nation and of Cooperative Extension.

In terms of the President’s emphasis on cultural values, Brooks offered this advice:

Culturally, he will have to demonstrate that even though he comes from an unusual background, he is a fervent believer in the old-fashioned bourgeois virtues: order, self-discipline, punctuality and personal responsibility.

From a public policy standpoint, he says the President will also have to stress the importance of restructuring in an era when growing numbers of Americans fear that the nation’s best years are behind it.

Companies like Ford cut wasteful spending while doubling down on productive investment. That’s exactly what the nation has to do over all. There have to be cuts, the president could say, in unaffordable pension commitments, in biofuel subsidies and useless tax breaks. But there also have to be investments in things that will produce a vibrant economy for our children: a simpler tax system with lower rates on investment; more scientific research; a giant effort to improve Hispanic graduation rates; medical courts to rationalize the malpractice system and so on.

It’s neither my intention to praise nor blame President Obama.  My priority as blogger is to identify current issues that have direct bearing on the movement I’ve come to love and cherish: Cooperative Extension.  And these two points have a direct bearing on Extension.

The cultural values of self-discipline, punctuality and personal responsibility have been critical to this nation’s long-term success.  4-H has played an indispensable role in propagating and instilling these values in five generations of American youth.

To put it another way, I believe that 4-H’s longstanding role — instilling young people with the skills they need to function in the real world — remains more than simply a quaint holdover from earlier decades.  This historical role remains no less critical — critical to the long-term survival of our society.  4-H educators and volunteers should make no bones about this fact.  They should proclaim it loudly, unapologetically and proudly.

Brooks’s second point about productive investment must also be taken to heart.  In historical terms, Cooperative Extension is one of this country’s most significant productive investments.  The role it served in rendering farming more efficient contributed directly to this nation’s reaching the pinnacle of world agricultural and industrial leadership in the 20th century.

Despite all this talk of Extension’s best years being behind us, we still have an essential niche to fill in terms of productive investment.

One of the greatest challenges this nation will face with the next few years is balancing sustainable practices with farm profitability and efficiency. If you doubt that, consider this quote from Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves:

This is what it would take to feed nine billion people in 2050: at least a doubling of agricultural production driven by a huge increase in fertilizer use in Africa, the adoption of drip irrigation in Asia and America, the spread of double cropping to many tropical countries, the use of GM crops all across the world to improve yields and reduce pollution, a further shift from feeding cattle with grain to feeding them with soybeans, a continuing relative expansion of fish, chickens and pig farming at the expense of beef and sheep  (chickens and fish convert grain into meat three times as efficiently as cattle; pigs are in between) — and a great deal of trade, not just because the mouths and the plants will not be in se same place, but also because trade encourages specialization in the best-yielding crops for any particular district.

Needless to say, the need for a “great deal of trade” inevitably will be accompanied by a great need for agronomists, soil scientists, entomologists, animal scientists and agricultural economists — experts who are not only fully engaged in classrooms and laboratories but also in face-to-face interactions with producers who will  comprise the vanguard of this new green revolution.

Back to Brooks’s phrase: productive investment.  The demands of mid-century agriculture will require a colossally large productive investment, not only in terms of research but also in active engagement with producers.

That’s one of the reasons why I believe Cooperative Extension’s best years are ahead of it rather than behind it: We will soon be called upon again to make an enormous productive investment in this nation’s and the world’s future.

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