Monthly Archives: November 2010

Of Southerners, Yankees and Cooperative Extension Work

I’m a native-born Southerner — a Southerner down to the very marrow of my bones, as I like telling friends.

Excuse the pun, but I make no bones about that fact.

Even so, at this point in my life, I have little patience with this notion, prevalent even today among some self-identified Southerners, that Southern is synonymous with agrarianism.

Unlike a lot of Southerners, I’m glad my ancestors were dragged kicking and screaming into the 19th, the 20th, and, ultimately, the 21st centuries.

I’m sitting here today on a university campus typing these words because the people who ultimately emerged victorious during the Civil War — the Yankees, as we call them down here — put a series of factors into play that forced my yeoman Southern ancestors off 40-acre farms.

Among these factors: land-grant universities, secured through congressional passage of the Morrill Act of 1862, which, I regret to say, was secured only because the Southern states were not represented at the time in Congress; the Hatch Act of 1887, which equipped these land-grant universities with facilities through which applied agricultural research could occur; and, finally, the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which created a statewide network of educators to ensure that the practical results of this research were adequately disseminated to the laboring and farming classes.

For these and other similar reforms, I am eternally grateful, notwithstanding the fact that I remain an unrepentant Southerner in many respects.

If you think about it, the material advantages we take so much for granted in the western world are due to the success of previous generations in drawing more people away from the farm into factories, ultimately securing what we perceive today as the fruits of modernity. 

I was reminded of this a couple of days ago reading a New York Times article about ongoing efforts to secure clean water for Africans.

As it happens, one of the biggest challenges facing many 21st century Africans is strikingly similar to the ones westerners faced until comparatively recently.

“Getting water is staggeringly burdensome — in southwestern Ethiopia, I met women who spend eight hours a day or more each day traveling back and forth to the river with 50-pound yellow plastic jerry cans on their backs,” writes Tina Rosenberg.  “The need to help mom while she fetches water is a primary reason that many girls don’t go to school.

“Fetching water enslaves women.”

If any phrase aptly summarizes the role scientific progress has served in emancipating human beings, it’s that one: “Fetching water enslaves women.”

Back-breaking human labor has enslaved earlier generations men and women in the South and throughout every corner of the earth.   The development and dissemination of scientific farming methods have put an end to much of this slavery.

These methods have advanced the human condition in two crucial ways: by rendering farming more efficient, it freed up increasing numbers of people to move to urban environments not only where they have a better chance at improving their educational and economic fortunes but also at exchanging ideas with increasing numbers of other people.

As you may have guessed, I’m relating all of this to drive home what I consider to be an essential lesson about the enduring value Cooperative Extension work.

This growing clamor for locally grown food and against so-called industrial farming has worked to demoralize many our ranks, leading us to believe that this century-long investment in building history’s most efficient farming system has amounted to a wasted effort.  It shouldn’t. 

As inevitably happens with intellectual fads, the reality — that is to say, the limits — of organic farming and locavorism already is sinking in among a growing number of commentators and policy makers.

The fact remains that we are up against a set of challenges remarkably similar to what our great-grandparents faced a century ago: to develop new scientific farming methods to feed billions more people — this time with considerably reduced inputs, particularly water and nonrenewable energy.

But this only speaks to part of the truth: Human progress has always on depended on specialization — on the constant refinement of scientific research to render labor more efficient, thereby ensuring that more specialization and, ultimately, more intellectual exchange follows.

Cooperative Extension developed into one of the most successful educational movements in human history because of the ways it has contributed to this effect.

Some people fear that our biggest challenge is to avoid becoming irrelevant.  I disagree — wholeheartedly. For the role we have served in advancing human beings down the current path, our mission remains more relevant than ever.

Our biggest challenge isn’t mission but rather how we carry it out — our outreach methods.  These must be refined and updated to enhance what we do best: rendering the lives and livelihoods of our clients more efficient, freeing them to make more valuable use of their time — in other words, advancing human progress.

Extension’s Fire Bell in the Night — Or Something Close

JFK at Rice University

President Kennedy speaking in 1962 at Rice University

If it’s not exactly Thomas Jefferson’s fire bell in the night, it comes awfully close.

What I mean is this growing public cynicism about scientific progress in the decades following the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the Three-Mile Island, Challenger and Chernobyl crises.

We Extension professionals and educators have been swimming against the tide of history ever since.

There was a time when this nation invested virtually boundless faith in progress.  A century ago, the Cooperative Extension mission was conceived in this faith.

For a reminder of just how deep and passionate this faith once was, refer to the JFK’s memorable Rice University speech (posted below).

“Man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred.” Kennedy said, outlining his vision for a manned moon mission, which was completed, according to this expressed wishes, within the decade.

“Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolution, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it — we mean to lead it.”

If any speech once summarized the American creed, it is this one.  Yet, today, almost a half century later, what once seem fresh and vibrant would be regarded by many as outdated, if not palpably naive.

The growing, widely expressed public cynicism associated with scientific advancement and achievement holds major implications for Cooperative Extension.

As I said, perhaps perhaps this growing cynicism doesn’t constitute a fire bell in the night, but it comes awfully close. 

To our credit, we Extension professionals have struggled to accommodate it as best we can.

Anyone involved in my line of work knows about all the furtive lip-biting that occurs day in and day out as our experts field calls about free-range chickens or organic gardening.

They know that these activities, while filling a niche, will not feed a world.  And feeding the world is precisely what we must do within the next three decades — a considerably more populated world that will be struggling to feed 3 billion more mouths with considerably straitened supplies of water and energy.

As unpalatable as this may seem to some, the solutions will require the same JFK-style “quest for knowledge and progress” that characterized previous scientific leaps.  And make no mistake about: Feeding 3-billion extra mouths in the next few decades will require the same kind monumental effort that characterized last century’s agricultural revolution.

It will require nothing less than —perish the thought — scientific farming principles, which will be expressed not only in smart irrigation and precision farming methods but also in considerably more controversial technologies such as genetically modified crops and nanotechnology.

Back to that phrase again: fire bell in the night.  Sooner or later, Extension professionals will be forced to cut to the chase.  Sooner or later, we will have to tie our fortunes to scientific farming methods, much as we have in the past.

Why? Because there is no third way in farming.  Yes, there is every reason to incorporate sustainable practices into modern farming methods, but the model we have constructed over the past 100 years can only be modified, not replaced.

Borrowing from JFK, just as Extension rode the first wave of the modern farming revolution of the 20th century, it must occupy the crest of the first wave of the next one — the 21st century farming revolution.

We Are Human Infrastructure!

I’ve experienced an epiphany within the last couple of weeks.

We need to be proclaiming Cooperative Extension for what it is, what it’s always been: infrastructure — not the inanimate stuff like Interstates and sprawling high-speed rail or airport terminals but the flesh-and-bone variety — human infrastructure.

I owe New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman for that insight. He used a couple of recent columns to illustrate how technological infrastructural development under way in China and India is destined to change the world as we know it.

Actually, that troubles him a bit. It’s led him to wonder whether the frantic effort under way in these countries within the past couple of decades to put this technological and educational structure in place is only the beginning of something even bigger and more far-reaching.

One thing is certain: These technologies are popping up on the Asian landscape like mushrooms after a heavy summer rain — so many, in fact, that they appear to be attracting many Chinese and Indians who otherwise would have stayed behind after graduate school to seek their fortunes in the United States.

Of course, there is every reason in the world for the Chinese and Indians to follow this path, to put more and more of this infrastructure in place: Each innovation offers more opportunity for intellectual exchange, which, in turn, creates enhanced opportunities for creativity and innovation.

Our own history has driven home this essential truth: Think of the enormous intellectual and economic advantages telegraphs provided American society in the 19th century.

That’s precisely what concerns Friedman: the threat these immense leaps in Asia pose to America’s leadership as the world’s preeminent creator and innovator.

He may be right.  The technological implications of this infrastructure to our future are immense. But so are the implications of the human infrastructure. 

Until now, we Americans have been way ahead of the curve on the human dimension.  The Morrill Act of 1862, which established land-grant institutions, followed by the Hatch Act and the Smith-Lever Act, represented a few of history’s most visionary attempts to develop human infrastructure.

Granted, some would contend that this type of human infrastructure is antiquated and that the sole emphasis in the future should be on building the same kind of infrastructure as Asia.

I disagree. We Americans run the risk of selling ourselves short if we emphasize technological infrastructure at the expense of human infrastructure.  There is still enormous value in the dense network face-to-face relationships that characterize the Cooperative Extension mission.  They have enormous potential for enhancing the connections that emerge from this newer, technological infrastructure.

I’ve already seen this through my own experiences working with Extension educators who already have successfully merged their traditional Extension roles with the emerging roles of networked educators. Yes, they’re learning how to use social media tools to expand their reach to newer, larger numbers of clientele, thereby increasing the speed and volume of intellectual exchange.

But through their traditional face-to-face relationships, they’re also enriching this dialogue.  And by enriching this dialogue, they are equipping themselves with a comparative advantage that many other educational entities lack. 

One effort that speaks volumes about the continued relevance of this older infrastructure is the work of Alabama Extension precision farming educators.  Using social media, they are drawing on the experiences they’ve gained through longstanding face-to-face relationships with row-crop producers in their regions to provide producers in other states and even other regions of the world with a clearer picture of some of the challenges they will face in adopting this new technology.

Of course, this is only one of many imaginative ways a successful marriage of older and newer infrastructure is occurring.

In this era of ultra-lean budgeting, it behooves all of us in Extension to take stock of our comparative advantages. 

We represent some of the best human infrastructure ever developed in any place of the world and at any time in history.  With some technological enhancements, we can become even better.

One other important point to bear in mind: We should be proclaiming this essential truth to the people who hold our future in their hands — our stakeholders.

Wanted: A John Wesley Legion for Cooperative Extension

John Wesley, Anglican Innovator, Founder of Methodism

John Wesley, Anglican Innovator, Methodist Founder

Anyone with a passing knowledge of Methodist history grasps one of the great ironies of that movement: that it started out not so much a movement of its own but as an attempt to reform the Church of England — namely, to make it relevant to working-class English men and women coping with the effects of industrialization and struggling to understand their place in it.

As a matter of fact, to this Methodist, the Wesleyan movement has always borne a remarkable resemblance to our movement.  After all, what was the purpose of land-grant institutions and the Cooperative Extension undertaking that followed other than an attempt to equip farmers and working-class men and women with the mental resources and skills to weather the effects of industrialization occurring around them?

I’ll even take this comparison one step further: Much as 18th century Anglicanism was in need of a makeover, so is 21st century Cooperative Extension.  Yes, we need not one John Wesley but a legion of them: men and women who can help transform our movement into the relevant, post-industrial knowledge organization that it must become.

What exactly would such a transformation entail? For a quick overview, I heartily recommend David Brooks’s latest column: “The Crossroads Nation.”

Just as agriculture was the major activity a half millennium ago and industrial production was the preoccupation of the last century, “innovation and creativity will be the engines of economic growth” in the 21st century, he contends.

The most successful societies of the world — and Brooks is fully confident that the United States, despite its current challenges, will remain the world’s most successful society — will provide aspiring innovators with the social context they require to realize their fullest potential.

This kind of achievement doesn’t occur within a vacuum — some solitary genius laboring alone in a laboratory or library.  There will be a measure of that, yes.  But social collaboration — networks — will comprise the most essential component. As Brooks stresses, creators and innovators will require teamwork every bit as much as solitary inspiration and discovery.

“The main point in this composite story is that creativity is not a solitary process,” Brooks writes. “It happens within networks. It happens when talented people get together, when idea systems and mentalities merge.”

People ask me why I, a confirmed pessimist, continue to express unbounded optimism about Cooperative Extension despite the seemingly endless budget cuts, downsizing and demoralization that inevitably follows. 

There is one reason: I am fully convinced that our history — our longstanding acquaintance with collaborative knowledge — fully and uniquely equips us to capitalize on what is occurring all around us.

We Cooperative Extension professionals are fortunate to work in the nation that Brooks believes is still the best equipped to serve as the world’s creative hub. We Americans speak the global language, we remain a high-trust society, we’re a universal nation with contacts all over the world, and we still possess a high degree of social trust and openness — all prerequisites for the society that is emerging.

Likewise, we’re fortunate that the successful society that emerges in the 21st century will be ours, the one best equipped to provides hubs — junction points — for this immense global network. 

Yet, we have some immense advantages of our own: namely, an enormous potential to provide American society with a number of these critical junction points. 

Even so, fully seizing these opportunities will require an organizational makeover.

That is why we will need creators and innovators of our own — legions of them — people who can show us how we can draw on our historic strengths to complete our transformation into a fully networked knowledge organization, one that promotes both creativity and innovation.

We need a legion of John Wesleys.

Riding the Red Tsunami: The Implications of the GOP Victory for Cooperative Extension

A torrent of deep red is washing across the political landscapes of Alabama and other states as the effects of last Tuesday’s electoral tsunami continue to play out.

I come neither to praise this change of political fortune nor to condemn it, only to discuss its implications for Cooperative Extension.

And make no mistake about it: there are implications, major implications, for Cooperative Extension.  We’re talking about one of the most far-reaching political trends in generations — a serious backlash against government occurring simultaneously with a period in history in which public revenue is scarcer than ever.

Borrowing Ricky Ricardo’s famous phrase, we Extension professionals have “got some ‘splainin’ to do” — ‘splainin’ to a new generation of legislators  and congressional members about why Extension still has a significant role to play in this nation’s future.

That prompted me to make a list — a list of the points we Extension educators should be driving home to these new caretakers — caretakers who hold the purse strings more tightly than ever.

1: We are an agency of empowerment

As the New York Times described it, the political road ahead has veered sharply to the right — at least, temporarily.

Actually, perhaps not so temporarily.  The acute fiscal challenges we face will not be resolved in this generation.   The American preoccupation with what presumptive House Speaker John Boehner recently described as the traditional American values of “economic freedom, individual liberty and personal responsibility” will likely persist for a long time to come.

Fortunately for us, our own unique experiences with personal empowerment have singularly equipped us to survive within this prevailing environment.

But after all, empowerment, personal empowerment, is our business.  To phrase it slightly differently, we are an empowering agency: We have always assumed a significant degree of personal responsibility on the part of our clients. And as government searches for cost-effective solutions in the midst of these acute fiscal challenges, the role we serve in empowering people to do more with less will garner a renewed appreciation — at least, so long as we are out there telling our story.

2. We are human infrastructure

We Extension professionals should bear in mind that we also comprise some of this nation’s most valuable infrastructure — human infrastructure.  

Recently, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman discussed the significant strides the Chinese and Indians have made in recent years developing communications infrastructure through which higher volumes informational exchange can occur — exchanges that he believes may propel these countries to the forefront of economic leadership within the next century.

We Extension professionals provide a similar kind infrastructure through which valuable intellectual, social, cultural and economic exchange occurs.  We constitute an older informational infrastructure, yes, but one that already is undergoing modernization as growing numbers of Extension professional master social media techniques.

I truly believe that what emerges ultimately will be regarded as another quantum Extension leap, one that equips us with a significant comparative advantage over other players within this crowded and flattened knowledge landscape.

3: We are catalysts

This only scratches the surface. We are catalysts too. Many of our clients, already fully wired, are as readily exposed to new ideas and new ways of thinking as Extension professionals.  And, yes, many of our clients already have adopted social media tools and can exchange information as quickly and as readily as we can.

But many of them still need catalysts — trained experts who not only can see the larger picture but who also can point them to cost-effective solutions that have not been fully explored or considered because of time constrains or other factors.

4. We are synergists

We are synergists too.   Our long-time experience with forging and cultivating partnerships among disparate groups has often enabled us to succeed where others have failed.  Time after time, Extension professionals have provided the impetus that enables ideas to move from the drawing board to the assembly floor and, ultimately, to the end user. 

Parting Words

I only scratch the surface, I know.  My intention here is to spark a dialogue.

I’ve pointed out more than once in this forum how events that have played out over the past few decades uniquely position Cooperative Extension for the future.

But these opportunities will not fall onto our laps.  We have work to do informing our policy makers and other stakeholders of the enormously valuable role we play in this age of austerity.

Yes, we’ve still got some ‘splainin’ to do — and the sooner we start, the better.

Concourse Fairs: The Next Big Cooperative Extension Idea?

I hate waste — wasted time, wasted effort and, worst of all, wasted opportunity.

I think that we Extension professionals, so preoccupied with steering our listing ship across stormy waters, often lose sight of golden opportunities to promote our work.

I was reminded of that last week putting finishing touches on a press release that dealt with the return of our 1939 State Fair murals to Birmingham for the first time in more than 70 years.

That started some deep reflection on our historic association with state fairs.

Then, the thought occurred to me: Why must it be something associated largely with our past?  For various reasons too numerous to enumerate, our historically close association with state fairs represents potentially huge marketing advantages.  Our challenge is to translate this association into 21st century terms.

That’s precisely the point at which I was struck by this inspirational idea: concourse fairs.

What do I mean? All sorts of modern urban and suburban  environments are equipped with concourses.  So why not organize “fairs” around these concourses?

Yes, the most obvious venue is malls, but why not concentrate first on those places where an awareness of Extension programming is most critically needed — college campuses?

Virtually all colleges and universities are equipped with concourses or similar open spaces that typically serve as popular venues for students activities.

Granted, all concourse fairs, particularly college fairs, should be tailored to specific audiences. That raises the question: What sorts of fair-related, uh, fare would offer the most compelling interest to college students? In this critical juncture of their lives, certainly not many of the things traditionally associated with autumn fairs.

I see these campus concourse fairs complementing much of what’s being discussed within the campus context.  For example, fair exhibits could focus on the ongoing debate between modern and organic farming methods and the role technology (e.g., precision farming, genetically modified crops and smart irrigation) will serve in feeding a growing human population.

Pressed for time, most college students eat on the go — the reason why I think food safety exhibits would also work well in this context.

Granted, a lot of creative thought will have to be invested in designing these fairs to attract college students, but I’m entirely convinced that it’s doable.  Like everything else associated with college outreach, it will have to be highly accessible, hands-on and interactive.

But as I said, I’m fully convinced that it can be done.

The same sort of creative designing also should be invested in concourse fairs at malls and strip malls.  Much like college concourse fairs, organizers should be highly cognizant of the audiences.

Some topics that come readily to mind: food safety; the pros and cons of home produce and livestock production; and the merits of conventionally- versus organically-grown produce.

Yes, among some of you, this idea may seem a bit of a rhetorical and creative overstretch on my part.  Even so, I think it has great potential for highlighting our messages among the segments of our society who are indispensable to our future.