Category Archives: Crops

Creative Destructionism and Cooperative Extension’s Role in It

Recently, a Facebook friend reproved me for my professional affiliation with the Cooperative Extension, specifically for the influential role Extension played in reducing the number family farms in the 20th century.

Cooperative Extension, he wrote, “was created to get farmers off their farms and into factories.”

The end result: the original green revolution – it was even called that, as my friend stressed. With it came the “chemicals and mechanization and the destruction of the family farm to fill jobs and [to] ensure cheap food.”

I won’t argue with that — for that matter, neither would most of my coworkers. As a matter of fact, I’ve been told that my ultimate boss, Auburn University President Jay Gogue, a great admirer of the Cooperative Extension legacy, has offered a somewhat similar interpretation during his tours of county Extension offices.

By propagating the scientific methods that rendered farming considerably more efficient, Extension had a major hand in the formation of the modern farming model, one that embodies the same unrelenting pursuit of efficiency that characterizes modern capitalism in general.

Our cheap food supply is the most tangible expression of this unrelenting quest for efficiency – a fact of which I was reminded a few days ago after purchasing a large chocolate cream pie for slightly more than $5 dollars.

Only a couple of centuries ago – a mere blink of the eye in historical terms – such a luxury food, trimmed with thick dollops of white icing, yet eminently affordable for the masses, would have been far beyond the mental grasp virtually everyone, rich and poor alike. I can only imagine how a poor Irish tenant farmer who spent his entire life subsisting entirely on marginal potatoes, known as lumpers, would have regarded such a thing.

The large, calorie-laden pie, purchased at a mere pittance, is a testament to the effective use of virtually everything modern science and economics have revealed up to now. To be sure, though, operating at this level of efficiency resulted in the effective obsolescence of legions of marginal wheat and dairy farmers — not to mention, bakers.

Just as the market giveth, it taketh away – therein lies the paradox of modern farming and of modern capitalism in general.

The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter coined a remarkable phrase for it: creative destructionism, one of the great insights of modern economical thought.

Destruction is one of the operating costs of market efficiency. In its ruthless quest for efficiency, the market routinely casts off products and practices – and, consequently, people too – once deemed important, if not indispensable, by earlier generations.

Modern farming is no exception.

Call me heartless but, all things considered, I would contend this has been a good thing. After all, cheap food is only one of many tangible benefits that have accompanied the creative destruction associated with modern farming.

As Matt Ridley observes in his latest book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, one of the hallmarks of modern farming, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, staved off the the deaths of millions from mass starvation as supplies of guano, which served as the principal sources of nitrogen in the late 19th and early 20th century, approached exhaustion.

Yet, as Ridley stresses time and again, this only scratches the surface. The improved yields that have accompanied modern farming have also greatly reduced the demand for cropland.

As he observes, if the average yields of 1961 were still commonplace in 1998, an extra 7.9 billion acres of land would have been put to the plow – an area comparable to the entire continent of South America, minus Chile.

Likewise, the more recent adoption of new techniques, such as precision farming, have resulted in drastic reductions in herbicide, pesticide and water use.

New lines of genetically modified crops will soon be available that are not only more resistant to drought and common plant diseases but that are also designed to address serious Third World vitamin and nutrient deficiencies.

Yes, Cooperative Extension played an integral role in all of this. We have been creators as well as destroyers, albeit creative destroyers. Yet, on balance, I believe the material benefits stemming from our century-old involvement in agriculture have served humanity in ways most of us scarcely grasp.

Cooperative Extension’s Finest Hour?

Even as Cooperative Extension faces the worst budgetary cutbacks in its almost century-long history, it is being called on to do the unthinkable:  To help farming reinvent itself by reducing its environmental footprint without eroding the high level of efficiency that characterizes the current model.

Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this year, Professor John Beddington, chief science adviser to the U.K. government, put this challenge into grim perspective, stressing that  global agriculture will have to produce 50 percent more food by 2030 to feed the growing population, projected to be 9.5 billion by mid-century.

Farmers are being called on to feed billions more, despite a future of drastically reduced supplies of fossil fuels and water resources — two resources critical to the success of modern agriculture within the last century.

That is the irony — and the opportunity — we face as Cooperative Extension educators.

For their part, British policy makers have already begun exploring ways to build a farm model that incorporates both sustainability and efficiency.

Stressing the need for Britain to grow more of its food while reducing the emission of greenhouse gases, Hilary Benn, the United Kingdom’s secretary of state for the environment, outlined the first new British agricultural policy in decades, one that possibly may offer insight into the kind of global farming model that eventually may emerge.

“We need to produce more food.  We need to do it sustainably. And we need to make sure what we eat safeguards our health,” he said in announcing the policy.

Benn said British consumers have a role to play by demanding greener food from retailers and by wasting less, and, equally significant, by growing more of their own food and developing local markets for these homegrown products.

He and other British policymakers believe this strategy would enhance community spirit as well as physical and community health.

But will it also secure what Beddington and other scientists wish to achieve within the next few decades: creating a farming market that is both sustainable and efficient enough to feed 3 billion more people?

To be fair, in addition to calling for expanding homegrown food production and local farm markets, many leading British researchers and policy makers also concede that that cutting-edge science will have an even more prominent role to play.

For his part, Beddington says that feeding the emerging world population will require production of more crops on less land and greater use of emerging technologies, especially the genetic modification of food and nanotechnology.

How these competing objectives ultimately will be balanced out is uncertain.  What is virtually certain is that some farming model that incorporates cost-efficiency and sustainability will emerge.  

Daunting as it is, this challenge presents us Extension educators with an immense opportunity, one that far surpasses the challenge we faced roughly a hundred years ago introducing mechanized farming practices to tens of thousands of family farms.

The important reality to bear in mind — one that we should proclaim to our clients and stakeholders frequently and unashamedly — is that no other public or private entity is as equipped to help our farmers build this new model.  Yes, public and private researchers have a critical role to play, but only we are equipped to provide the nation’s farmers with the big picture — and by big picture, I mean the complete set of skills and altered thinking required to make this transition.

Yes, as cloudy as the Cooperative Extension future often seems, we nonetheless have a vital role to play in the future — one that very well could be prove to be our finest hour.

Sustainability: The Future of Cooperative Extension Programming

Okay, I’m convinced: The biggest issue for Extension for the foreseeable future will be sustainability.  The recent columns of three New York Times writers helped close the sale for me.

Here’s why:

First, persistent concerns about the carbon threat.  Granted, I’m not entirely convinced that global warming is real.  But then again, I’m no expert.  And the fact remains that a majority of this nation’s policymakers and pundits believe it to be true.  Thomas Friedman perceives it not only as a real but even as an immediate threat, especially considering the possibility that

… the next emitted carbon molecule will tip over some ecosystem and trigger a nonlinear event — like melting the Siberian tundra and releasing all its methane, or drying up the Amazon or melt all the sea ice in the North Pole in summer.  And when one ecosystem collapses, it can trigger unpredictable climate changes in others that could alter our entire world.

And there is the added threat of chronic debt and especially of its long-term implications for America’s future.  As Friedman observes,

…One need only look at today’s record-setting price of gold, in a period of deflation, to know that a lot of people are worried that our next dollar of debt— unbalanced by spending cuts or new tax revenues — will trigger a nonlinear move out of the dollar and torpedo the U.S. economy.

The worst-case scenario: A future in which U.S. national and local governments, faced with insurmountable debt levels, will no longer be able to make the public investments necessary to secure the future of younger generations of Americans.

If these factors have not yet bred a culture of malaise, they have put Americans into what Roger Cohen describes as a “different mental place.”

They’re paying down debt. They’re not hiring. They’ve gotten reacquainted with risk. They’re going to have to survive without Gourmet magazine.

And in the future, this will force Americans, whether they live in red or blue states, to put aside obsolescent cultural warfare and to embark on what David Brooks describes as a “crusade for economic self-restraint.”

Indeed, to an increasing degree, the elites as well as ordinary people fear that humanity is dealing with an ailing economic model that may even be teetering on collapse.

Add to that the concerns about the appalling state of American health, which to an increasing degree are ascribed to the current U.S. farm production system.  But there is an even bigger sustainability issue associated with health: The growing strains within the U.S. medical system that inevitably will force a greater emphasis on preventive health care – sustainability by any other name.

Simply put, for a variety of reasons, there is a growing, if not full-blown sense of malaise in 21st century America — which brings us back to that word again: sustainability.

Some elites and ordinary people alike are more disposed to this term than ever before.

Sustainability affords Cooperative Extension the opportunity to burnish our image, demonstrating to our clients and stakeholders how we will play an integral role helping build new production systems that factor in growing economic and environmental concerns.  As one of my Extension colleagues pointed out recently, we played a major role in building the so-called factory farming system.  Now we must demonstrate how we are helping people move toward production systems that are more environmentally sustainable.

Sustainability also empowers us in another way: It presents us with a golden opportunity to undertake one of the most important challenges of this century: to close the circle, showing how sustainability relates to all of us.  Yes, we help the planet by doing everything from recycling to adopting greener production systems, but we also help humanity – and, ultimately, our strained medical system — by adopting sustainable lifestyles that emphasize prevention.

Yes, I know, we’ve been promoting health lifestyles for years, but now the stars are aligned in a way they have never been before.

While I’ll confess to some bias, I believe no other organization is better equipped than Cooperative Extenison to educate people about what is undoubtedly the most important challenge of  the 21st century— building systems that will sustain our planet as well as our personal well-being.

 Yes, sustainability is the future of Cooperative Extension.

A Glance Backward, A Step Forward

Yes, I hear it all the time: Cooperative Extension faces some of the most challenging times in our history, and meeting these challenges will require us to look forward rather than backward.

Valid advice, to be sure.

But at least one milestone of Alabama Extension history deserves a backward glance.  This year marks the 50 anniversary of Alabama cotton scouting — a massive effort that has involved generations of agents, farmers and aspiring college graduates and  a chapter of Extension history that serves as one of the most fitting and moving testimonies to the genius that Cooperative Extension work was and continues to be.

Cotton scouting bespeaks the genius of Cooperative Extension work in so many ways: our peculiarly American penchant for improvisation and pragmatics; our willingness to take risks; our readiness to work across organizational and disciplinary boundaries when the need arises; and our ability to bring research-based knowledge to bear over long stretches of time on what initially seem like intractable problems.

And an intractable problem this was: Southern farmers had been up against the recalcitrant boll weevil for decades — an effort that required the application of a virtual arsenal of pesticides, which was expensive and, to the growing dismay of researchers, possibly harmful to the environment.

But researchers had also discovered that farmers could reduce the levels of pesticide use through well-timed applications.

The challenge was not only to drive this important new insight home to cotton producers but also to develop a system by which they could determine the best times to apply these chemicals.

This required careful monitoring of fields to determine when post-populations had attained levels that required treatment.   

Still, the challenged remained how — how to find the time to monitor cotton fields for insect infestation when farmers faced even more pressing demands.

University of Arkansas educators eventually came up with an almost deceptively simple concept, which came to be known as cotton scouting.  

Working with their local county Extension agent, cotton growers would pool their resources to hire someone to monitor their fields through the cotton season.  In the vast majority of cases, these monitors – cotton scouts as they were later called — turned out to be graduate and undergraduate students at the state land-grant university.

It provided to be a win/win scenario both for the growers and the students: Farmers secured dedicated scouts for the entire growing season, while the students acquired a summer job, which typically generated enough funds to cover tuition and many college expenses throughout the next academic year.

In addition to enabling hundreds of college students to complete their undergraduate and, in some cases, their graduate educations, cotton scouting also helped thousands of farmers across the South reap substantial savings in chemical costs — a factor that also produced lasting benefits to the environment.

We Extension professionals talk a lot about how the radically changed knowledge landscape of the 21st century will require a new kind of educator equipped with the requisite skills to navigate around and compete on this new terrain.  Without a doubt, this is true.

But as we acquire and perfect these new skills, a glance or two back at organizational milestones such as cotton scouting is essential, if only to underscore the importance of never losing sight of the core values that have defined — and always will define — Cooperative Extension work: our ability to improvise, to forge partnerships and to change with the times.

And occasional glance backward reminds us of who we are.  That’s not a bad thing.

Boll Weevil Eradication: A Lesson for the 21st Century

Comedian Bill Cosby once said that the U.S. Civil Rights movement was as much an act of intellect as it was of raw courage and sheer physical will.


I was thinking about this several days ago writing about a newly published history of boll weevil eradication in Alabama by Dr. Ron Smith, a retired Extension entomologist and Auburn University emeritus professor of entomology.

Anyone who doubts the indispensable role Cooperative Extension played in eradicating the weevil should take the time to read it.  This voracious pest represented not only the greatest single challenge to Cooperative Extension but also played a critical role in our movement’s formation.   And, much like the U.S. Civil Rights movement, eradication was every bit as much an act of intellect as it was of raw courage and will. Interestingly, it also involved the efforts of black and white scientists and agents, a foreshadowing of the changes that would follow civil rights legislation in the 1960s.

Equally significant, it affirmed the Cooperative Extension model like no other single event in our almost century-old history, demonstrating how scientific research could be brought to bear on a problem and then disseminated to the people who had critical need of it. Yes, it took roughly 70 years for this effort to play out fully, but the South is a better place because of it.  And it was not only the eradication of the pest itself that brought long-term benefits   Final victory over the weevil was preceded by agricultural diversification, the widespread adoption of entomological science in Southern agriculture, and spillover effects into other scientific disciplines and technologies.

I believe there is a lesson for Extension professionals in the 21st century.  Our early 20th century Extension predecessors lived in an era when Americans still maintained an enduring respect for progress — the role science and technology could play in making their lives better.

On the other hand, we live in an era when faith in science has been eroded by many of the technological advances that have followed in its wake.  Immense advances in communications technology, for example, have led to an astonishing diversification of media through which all types of messages, including scientific and technical knowledge, are communicated.  One immediate effect has been an informational overload whereby valid scientific and technical knowledge is crowded out by junk science — an effect that, along with other factors, has bred a loss of faith in science.  One unfortunate consequence is that science and technology are often viewed as root causes of, rather than solutions to, many of our society’s most pressing problems.

Our role, as Extension professionals, is to constitute a vanguard of sorts — to restore Americans’ flagging faith in scientific progress.  But we operate on entirely different terrain compared to our predecessors a century ago.  Unlike our early 20th century forebears, we constitute only one voice among many, many others. But, much like our early 20th century forebears, gaining our footing and learning how to project this voice in the most effective way possible, will require a combination of intellect, courage and sheer willpower.

The challenge awaits us.