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.