Category Archives: Public Policy Context of Cooperative Extension

Extension’s Critical Need for Public Intellectuals

Anthony Giddens

British sociologist Anthony Giddens, one of many public intellectuals throughout the world adding their perspectives to contemporary issues of the day.

As some you undoubtedly have perceived by now, one of the focuses of this weblog is to underscore the need for our becoming different — to find ways to distinguish ourselves from our competitors, from other knowledge providers.

The thoughts I shared yesterday regarding Extension’s transformation from technological crusader to conciliator take me back to a piece I wrote last year about our acute need to cultivate a national corps of public intellectuals.

Yes, I know, it sounds a bit grandiose, but I’m more convinced than ever of this burning need. Indeed, as I see it, cultivating a committed nationwide corps of articulate, perceptive public intellectuals is a key step in our organizational transformation.  It offers an immense opportunity for creative sedition — acting within our current category while playing beyond stereotype.

What exactly is a public intellectual?  Traditionally speaking, one who deals with ideas and knowledge within the context of public discourse, usually within a mass media context, though with the advent of the Web, this role has evolved somewhat.

We need more of these people, especially within farming.  The transition from the current scientific farming model to one that combines elements of the current model with sustainable practices is destined to be a difficult one.

As I stressed yesterday, grassroots Extension educators have a huge role to fill helping producers undertake this transition — to put it another way, helping conciliate these somewhat conflicting visions. They inevitably will be borrowing a page or two from our horticultural educators, who are already dealing with a similar challenge helping their growers weigh and balance these issues.

However, this issue is playing out within a wider public context too.

Earlier this week, a New York Times digital and pop culture columnist Virginia Heffernan offered a lighthearted account of the 50-year feud between those standpat food traditionalists, commonly known as foodies, and the food techies who eagerly abandoned traditional food preparation techniques for the modern conveniences of life — can openers, microwaves and grocery store rotisseries.

It’s a lighthearted treatment or a comparatively light subject, yes, but this 50-year feud closely resembles what is taking place between the proponents and detractors of the conventional scientific farming practices.  It is a feud ensuing throughout wider avenues of public discourse between those who harbor misgivings about the implications of technology and those who, despite a few misgivings, are largely convinced that technology will lead us to a better ways of living and working.

Issues such as these are screaming to be put into perspective. Who but Extension educators are better equipped to put these issues into context?

Our history has uniquely equipped us for such a task.  We have amassed an impressive record functioning as grassroots scientific vanguards, showing people how to put scientific knowledge to practical use. It’s one of the great strengths of Cooperative Extension, though, to be sure, one that has not been cultivated to its fullest potential.

As our rule evolves from that of technological crusader to that of technological conciliator, the need for this corps of public intellectuals will become even more critical.

To repeat my earlier suggestion, we need to start cultivating the talents of our best scientific educators.  We should nurture their talents and inspire them to become public intellectuals in the fullest measure of that term — people who can identity as well as capitalize on opportunities to educate our diverse audiences about the food-and-fiber issues that lie just ahead of us.

They must learn to become effective social media users, op-ed writers and trained speakers thoroughly equipped to engage clients and stakeholders in a variety of public contexts.

Yes, we need to be cultivating a corps of public intellectuals and promoting them with the same zeal with which Division I universities promote their star athletes.

Our organizational future will depend on them.

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Taller? Healthier? Thank an Extension Educator

Tuskegee Institute Movable SchoolI’ve spoken more than once in this forum about Uva Hester, a pioneering Extension public health educator of the early 20th century.

Writing her weekly report in June 1920, Hester, a Tuskegee Institute health educator, related a horrifying experience with one of her clients, a young woman and tuberculosis patient, bedridden for more than a year, suffering from openings in her chest and side as well as a bedsore the size of a human hand on her back.

Her family had made no provision to protect her from the flies that swarmed around her, Hester soberly related.

It was a sight that almost defies human comprehension in the 21st century but that was all too common among southerners, particularly black southerners, in early 20th century Alabama.

Hester, along with a team of poorly funded but determined Tuskegee Institute educators, led by an equally determined and resourceful agent named Thomas Campbell, vowed to do something about it.  Working with the state’s health department, Tuskegee educators fanned out across the state, not only to care for the chronically ill but also to show their families and neighbors what they could do to prevent the spread of tuberculosis and other unsafe, if not potentially deadly, conditions.

I was reminded of Hester today after reading a New York Times article attesting to the immense advances in human health and well-being that have occurred within the last few centuries.

The Times reports that for almost three decades, a team of researchers led by Nobel Laureate Robert W. Fogel has been diligently investigating how changes in the size and shape of the human body reflect the dramatic strides in food production and human health and nutrition.  The results of this study have been compiled into a book titled “The Changing Human Body: Health, Nutrition and Human Development in the Western World Since 1700,” which will be published by Cambridge University Press in May, 2011.

The researchers maintain that “in most if not quite all parts of the world, the size, shape and longevity of the human body have changed more substantially, and much more rapidly, during the past three centuries than over many previous millennia” — as they stress, “minutely short by the standards of Darwinian evolution.”

One of the nation’s leading demographers and sociologists, the University of Pennsylvania’s Samuel Preston, puts the issue into sharp perspective:  Without the advances in nutrition, sanitation, and medicine, only half of the current American population would be alive today.

The last 100 years of progress are due in no small measure to Uva Hester and the thousands of Extension public health educators who have acquainted Americans with working knowledge that has not only improved their lives but, in an immense number of cases, actually saved them.

The Tuskegee Institute Extension efforts are only one of many examples of Extension-sponsored efforts aimed at improving basic nutritional and health skills, especially among limited resource families.  For example, in the early 1960s, five rural Alabama counties served as pilot sites for what later became known as the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), which was developed to provide directed education to limited resource families to improve their eating habits and homemaking skills.  The program was eventually expanded to all 50 states.

The role that pioneering Extension nutritional and health educators have played in these advances, while impressive, should not detract from the equally critical contributions of Extension agricultural educators in helping the nation’s farmers secure one of the greatest technological achievements in human history: a comparatively cheap, diverse and abundant food supply.

As Fogel stresses, technological advances rescued farmers from the endless cycle of subsistence farming.  For example, colonial-era farmers worked some 78 hours during a five-and-a-half day week.  Farmers needed more food to grow and gain strength, but they were unable to grow more food without being stronger.

The improved yields secured by advanced scientific farming methods broke this cycle and changed the face of farming forever.

The strong Extension emphasis on adopting farm mechanization — replacing draft animals with farm machinery — ultimately helped free up millions of acres of agricultural land to supply human needs — land that had been previously tied up to feed farm animals.

Despite these immense strides, Extension educators still face a bevy of challenges.

Fogel concedes that when he first began his research, he never imagined that technological advances would lead to chronic problems of overnutrition, which have contributed to obesity and related chronic conditions such as heart disease, stroke, hypertension and certain types of cancer.

Extension nutrition and health educators increasingly are being called upon to demonstrate practical ways to avoid these conditions.

Meanwhile, Extension agricultural educators are gearing up to help farmers build a new farming model by mid-20th century that not only incorporates both scientific farming advances and sustainable practices but  that is also equipped to feed some 9 billion people across the planet using less land, less water and less energy.

Bringing a Sword to Brand

Reading this blog entry. which has to be one of the most succinct and insightful I’ve encountered in a long time, I was reminded of that controversial passage in the Gospel of Matthew (10:34): “I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword.”

Fast Company’s William C. Taylor, discussing Youngme Moon’s splendid new book, Different, essentially contends that this is what companies, in terms of their branding, must do: not seek peace — peace of mind, in this case — but wield a sword.

This insight was driven home to him several years ago while attending a conference of unusually dolorous regional bank CEOs distraught over how desperately competitive credit markets had become.

Taylor relates how his initial sympathy for these executives was quickly dissipated after learning of the results of a study of frontline retail bank employees, roughly two-thirds of whom could offer no compelling reason why their bank should be chosen over their competitors.

The bank executives seemed unsurprised. I was stunned. How can the leaders of any company expect to perform the competition when their own people can’t explain what makes them different from the competition and better than they’ve been in the past? That’s the real problem with so many organizations today. It is also the huge opportunity for executives, entrepreneurs, and innovators of all stripes who are prepared to shake up their industries by doing something distinctive.

That, in fact, is one of the purposes of Moon’s book: to account for why most companies have failed to grasp that central fact.

For his part, Taylor serves up this Moon quote to demonstrate the costs companies have incurred from following this counterintuitive, me-too approach.

In category after category, companies have gotten so locked into a particular cadence of competition that they appear to have lost sight of their mandate — which is to create meaningful grooves of separation from one another. Consequently, the harder they compete, the less differentiated they become… Products are no longer competing with each other; they are collapsing into each other in the minds of anyone who consumes them.

The solution: Idea brands, which Taylors aptly describes as “products and services whose performance and personality in the marketplace challenge the limits and assumptions of entire categories.”

Yes, I know, Extension is not a company but a public sector agency. Even so, I steadfastly contend that the Moon’s insights hold every bit as true for us.

As one state legislature after another has underscored in recent months, Extension is no longer a sacrosanct budget item.  As a matter of a fact, we’re being confronted with a question starkly similar to that posed to the frontline bank employees: What separates us from the scores of other agencies lined up for slices of the dwindling state and federal revenue pies?

Every chance I get, I tell younger Extension professionals that one of the best things they can do for their careers is to master the science of stickiness — to ensure that their messages, whatever these happen to be, stick in the minds of their clients and stakeholders.

Of course, what applies to us as individuals applies to Extension as a whole. In this age of austerity we have some serious ‘splainin’ to do. We’ve got to craft a message that sticks.

Sooner or later, this ‘splainin’ must be expressed a new brand, an idea brand, which will enable us to redefine ourselves within this radically new and challenging  environment.

What applies to private-sector companies applies to us: We no longer enjoy the luxury of peace-of-mind branding.

Yes, sooner or later, we must begin anew — and when we do, we should bring a sword.

Brooks on the “New Humanism”

We are at the cusp of a revolution in consciousness, argues author and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

This revolution could be summed in roughly as “David Hume was right: the British Enlightenment trumps its French counterpart.” Essentially, what we’ve learned is that our emotions count for much more than we ever imagined – insight that holds major implications not only for us as individuals but as Extension professionals.  Problem-solving is not just about bringing rational thought to bear on a problem.  As Hume contended, emotion informs rationality.  Even more significant, these two sides of human nature are inextricably linked.

Brooks’s TED lecture is informative, inspiring and even a little sublime, as corny as this sounds.  One caveat, though: viewing this is no substitute for reading his book “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement.”

As I said, the implications for Cooperative Extension work are profound.

Seven Reasons Why We Need Cooperative Extension in the 21st Century

Excuse the hyperbole, but I originally titled this “Seven Reasons Why Extension Will Survive and Thrive (and Possibly Even Save the Planet) in the 21st century.

I admit that would have been a tad too rhetorically overblown, but there is a ring of truth to it. Despite these looming budget cuts, despite all this talk of Extension having passed its prime, I still believe that we not only will survive in the 21st century but also carve out a lasting presence that not only will enrich millions more lives but also help make the world a safer, greener, happier place.

Here are seven reasons why:

1. We are Sustainers

Sustainability is taking on new meaning.

Many of the nation’s governors are using it to underscore in these lean fiscal times why Americans must become good stewards in all facets of their lives.

One example: Tightening budgetary restraints on the U.S. healthcare system are prompting more Americans to adopt lifestyle practices that safeguard against chronic disease.

Meanwhile, farmers are gearing up to feed a projected 9 billion people by mid-century with less cropland and water and in the midst of spiking fuel and fertilizer costs, even as they are being called upon to develop safer, greener production systems that emphasize organic- and locally-grown foods.

Even with online sources literally available their fingertips, people can’t solve these problems entirely on their own.

Extension is uniquely equipped to help people adopt sustainable practices in all facets of their lives.

2. We are Catalysts

One Alabama cattle producer underscored recently the invaluable role Cooperative Extension educators serve as catalysts — in this case, helping him install a GPS device to reap substantial costs savings.

“It’s gotten me started a little sooner than I would have,” the farmer wryly observes, admitting that it likely would have been years before he had discovered and installed the device on his own.

Through the Internet, farmers are as readily exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking as the rest of us, but they still need catalysts — trained experts who can see the larger picture and who can point to cost-effective solutions they otherwise would not have considered because of times constraints, professional preoccupations or other factors.

What applies to farmers applies to all of us.

3. We are an Agency of Empowerment

As New York Times columnist Roger Cohen soberly observed recently, the 2008 stock market downturn followed more recently by severe federal and state budgetary cutbacks have left all American in a “different mental place.”

Likewise, as British sociologist Anthony Giddens has stressed, policymakers in this age of austerity are placing an increasing emphasis on dialogue and empowerment, approaches that encourage individuals and groups to address change by making things happen rather than having things happen to them.

A preoccupation with personal empowerment will persist for a long time. The good news for us is that personal empowerment is our business. We are an agency of empowerment.

As government searches for cost-effective alternatives in the midst of these budgetary restraints, the role we serve enabling people to do more with less will garner a renewed appreciation — at least, so long as we are telling our story.

4. We are Human Infrastructure

We all know that in the 21st century, there is a strong emphasis on building technological infrastructure.  Small wonder why: It offers enhanced opportunities for intellectual exchange, which, in turn, creates enhanced opportunities for creativity and innovation.

Let’s not forget that we are infrastructure — not the inanimate stuff like high-speed rail or Internet connections — but the flesh-and-bone variety — human infrastructure.

Even in this wired age, there remains an enormous value in the dense network of 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.

5. We are Contextualizers

The bad news: As flesh-and-bone knowledge providers, we cannot hold a candle to virtual knowledge sources, especially search engines — no doubt about that.

The good news is that we still possess something that search engines and other online applications lack: the ability to provide our audiences knowledge within deep, enriched learning contexts.  We help our diverse audiences not only understand knowledge within a wider learning context but, even more important, how to use it to enhance their lives in lasting, meaningful ways.

6. We are Synergists

Our longstanding experience with forging and cultivating partnerships among diverse groups has often enabled us to succeed where others have failed.

As our work in community resource development has underscored time and again, Extension educators have provided the crucial impetus that moves ideas from the drawing board to the assembly floor and, ultimately, to the end user.

7. We are Collaborators

To an increasing degree, wikinomics, which emphasizes the power of collaborative wisdom and learning, is being adopted by everyone from global companies to educational institutions.

Extension pioneers Seaman Knapp and Booker T. Washington anticipated this 21st century mindset more than a century ago: They didn’t view their clients as passive subjects; they considered them equals — more than that, they regarded them as active collaborators in their outreach efforts.

Wikinomics is written into our organizational DNA — a trait that gives us an enormous competitive advantage over other public and private entities that are just now coming to terms with new demands of the 21st century knowledge economy.

A Charge to Keep

I’ll close this by admitting to something — bias.  I love Extension work.  I feel fortunate to have served a quarter century in an agency — an educational movement — that puts knowledge to practical use.

Even in this cash-strapped era, we have a charge to keep.  In the midst of this gloom, I believe that our longstanding appreciation for dialogue, forging partnerships and empowering people uniquely equips for the challenges of the 21st century.

[Note: I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the extent to which I have merely followed the tracks of one of this century’s true visionaries: Thomas Friedman, whose observations about the flat world and all of its sundry implications provided much of the intellectual basis for this piece.]

Bellwether Race in a Bellwether Ag State

The Iowa secretary of agriculture race bears close watching by Cooperative Extension agricultural professionals who want to gain a clearer picture of how agricultural  policy will play out over the next few years.

Incumbent Bill Northey, a full-time commercial corn grower whom The Atlantic depicts as an “establishment candidate,” is running against Francis Thicke, an organic beef producer.

“For the food movement, [this race] is the most important this election,” says sustainability advocate and author Michael Pollan, who was quoted by The Atlantic.

In fact, Pollan and other sustainability proponents point to it as a bellwether for the rest of the nation.

Northey, who has received corporate support from Monsanto, Sygenta, DuPont and Wal-Mart, is a major proponent of exporting Iowa ag products.

Thicke, who holds a Ph.D in agronomy and is a vocal sustainability advocate,  has written a free, downloadable book on agriculture:  A New Vision for Iowa Food and Agriculture.   Unlike Northey, Thicke wants to create a food processing infrastructure to ensure that more homegrown food stays in Iowa.

Following is the first segment of a debate between the two candidates held earlier this year.