Category Archives: Science

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.


Random Thoughts on the Value of Serendipity

Cooperative Extension’s working knowledge model is as much serendipitous as it is purposeful —one of the reasons why I’m more convinced than ever that the Extension model still has a valuable role to serve in the future, despite all of the nay saying.

Working as an Extension news and public affairs professional in the Deep South, I’ve seen firsthand how advances in cotton entomology have provided an ongoing testimony to the value of this serendipitous approach.

Cotton farming has moved ever closer to a sustainable farming model — one that uses pesticides far more judiciously than it did a few decades ago.   But this has not been by design.

Money — namely widespread concerns among farmers about the lack of it — is what moved cotton farming ever closer to a sustainable model.   Back to that word again — serendipity.

Farmers were concerned that numerous seasonal applications of pesticides to control crop pests threatened their long-term economic viability.

However, cotton research revealed at the time that well-timed applications were not only more effective against pests but also could possibly enable farmer to reduce the number of chemical applications, thereby reducing operating expenses.

To impart these ideas to growers, the University of Arkansas devised what ultimately proved to be an ingenious concept — cotton scouting.  Working with their local Extension agents, cotton growers pooled their resources to hire scouts to monitor their field for insects throughout the growing season.  The scouts’ careful monitoring of these fields enabled growers to apply chemicals far more judiciously.  As a result, application costs decreased.

Cotton farmers’ manic desire to reduce operating costs also led to the adoption of the Boll Weevil Eradication Program and the subsequent adoption of transgenic cotton varieties engineered for pest resistance —both of which have contributed to steep reductions in pesticide applications.  All of these strides have had the unintended effect of moving farmers ever closer to a sustainable farming model.

One of the values of an open society, such as the United States, is that it provides an environment in which free inquiry and discovery yields a host of unanticipated benefits — serendipity by any other name. Cooperative Extension, particularly the role it has played in cost-effective farming, testifies to the astonishing effects that typically follow when these conditions are in place.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: Cooperative Extension should not feel threatened by the emerging knowledge economy and particularly by the wikinomical approaches to knowledge generation and transfer that have accompanied it.  In many respects, we anticipated this approach more than a 100 years ago.

Instead of fearing the advent of this new age, we should welcome it — not just welcome it but embrace it.  Most important of all, we should identify the myriad of ways in which our unique experiences with collaborative knowledge can enhance it.  As Extension educators, we have as much to teach as we have to learn.

Yes, I’m remain more convinced than ever that Extension’s working knowledge model will continue to serve our clients, albeit in a form that makes greater use of social media tools, especially wikinomical-related methods of knowledge transfer.

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.

What Cooperative Extension Sorely Needs: More Public Intellectuals

What has become of America’s scientific vanguard — those people who helped inspire and create a technological civilization that, up to now, at least, has been the envy of the world?

That’s a good question.   As a matter of fact, for Extension educators, it’s not just a good question, it’s a paramount question.  For almost a century, we have comprised a vital component of that vanguard.

Why is this question now so paramount? Because as sound science rapidly loses ground to junk science, Cooperative Extension educators are lining up on what many Americans, however unjustly, consider to be the wrong side of the debate.

You’ve seen it, I’ve seen it — virtually everyone employed in Cooperative Extension work has seen the growing disdain, particularly among many of the nation’s public intellectuals, for any farming method deemed “unnatural,” whether this involves tilling or applying herbicides or insecticides.

Among ordinary Americans, this thinking has taken on an almost conspiratorial hue.  Case in point:  Commenting on my recent online newspaper column on the economic challenges associated with raising free-range chicken, one respondent pointed to a USDA “conspiracy” against small-scale growers —one in which Cooperative Extension purportedly serves an active, conscious agent.

Today, New York Times blogger Tom Kuntz weighed into this increasingly contentious but woefully underreported debate.

Among other prominent figures in this debate, Kuntz cited Missouri farmer Blake Hurst, who has worked on his family farm for more than 30 years.  In response to an Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Hurst summarized the pro-farming side of the debate:

Much of his argument comes down to: beware the law of unintended agricultural consequences. Farming without herbicides means more tilling and more erosion. Let turkeys roam outside and they’re prone to attack by weasels, or drowning by their own upturned beaks in downpours. Freeing massive hogs from confinement crates means they sometimes crush their piglets to death, or eat them right after they’re born.

Anyone associated with commercial agriculture understands this.  Farming functions on the basis of common sense rather on than some malicious intent to defraud consumers. 

Is there still a place for organic food production? Yes, absolutely.  But without these common sense practices, which involve everything from herbicide and pesticide application to livestock vaccination, we would be deprived of a food production and distribution system that enables less than 2 percent of the population to feed the remaining 98 percent with a measure of efficiency and safety than earlier generations would have found mindboggling.

It’s an important, if not vital, point, though one that is increasingly failing to get through to public intellectuals and ordinary Americans like.

And, frankly, I think it implies a lapse, if not an outright failure, on our part.  Communicating these sorts of complex issues in a way that public intellectuals and ordinary people can grasp is a task which could — should — be entrusted to Cooperative Extension educators.

Indeed, from the very beginning, Extension agents and specialists have functioned as scientific vanguards, showing people how to put scientific knowledge to practical use. It’s one of the greatest strengths of Cooperative Extension, though one that has never been cultivated to its fullest potential.  It’s time that it was.

We need more Blake Hursts.

Here is my suggestion: that we start cultivating the talents of our best scientific educators. The most promising of those educators should be developed into nothing less than public intellectuals — people who know how to identify and capitalize on opportunities to advance a public understanding of and appreciation for sound science.

Some of the skills with which they should be equipped: how to develop and write effective blogs; how to formulate and write op-eds; and how to communicate in a manner that not only is readily grasped but that also serves as an impetus for action.

We must create a vanguard of public intellectuals capable of serving at the state and national levels. And we should cultivate and promote them in the same manner with the Division I universities do star athletes.

Who Says 4-H is Passe?

Maybe it’s a middle-aged thing, but as I age I spend more time reflecting on the people, things and events throughout my life that not only made me happy but that also have contributed to the person I’ve become.

Many of the deepest insights I’ve gained over the last quarter century have been through close association with other Cooperative Extension professionals, such as Dr. Ned Browning.

Ned regrettably left Alabama to take an administrative post at another state Extension headquarters while I was still a comparative greenhorn.

But he left a lasting impression. Aside from being a well-integrated person psychologically, he evinced a deep familiarity with many practical things —one that complemented the more abstract, academic knowledge he had acquired in the course of completing his doctoral work.

Over time, though, I learned that this ability to integrate practical with more abstract forms of knowledge seamlessly and in ways that benefitted people was one of the hallmarks of the Extension educator — working knowledge as I’ve come to call it.

A lot of Ned’s insights into balancing the practical with the more theoretical was acquired from the countless hours spent preparing for and competing in countless 4-H science demonstrations.

I was reminded of this recently while reading Malcolm Gladwell’s latest best seller, Outliers: The Story of Success.

Gladwell makes a point that is often lost in this meritocratic, SAT-obsessed society: Smartness is only one component of success.  With it come important but far less tangible factors.

He cites Bill Gates as a shining example.  No doubt about it, Gates is one extremely smart cookie.  But in addition to smartness, he also secured another distinct advantage — as it turns out, one crucial advantage — that put him head and shoulders above many other smart contemporaries: immersion in what would become his lifetime passion and calling.

Way back in 1969, Gates became only one of a handful of grade-schoolers who got to do real-time programming on a main-frame computer located in the Seattle, WA, area where he lived.  The thousands of hours he logged over the next 7 years provided him with an intimate knowledge of programming that only a paltry few of his contemporaries managed to acquire.

In addition to putting him light years ahead of virtually every other kid on the planet harboring similar interests in computers, it also equipped him with incomparable advantages years later when he decided to drop out of Harvard and try his luck with software design.

Yes, luck certainly played a part in Gates’s subsequent success.  He was fortunate to have been born to wealthy, educated parents who helped foot some of the costs of these early endeavors.  Likewise, he was spent his childhood in a region of the country where cutting-edge computer research was taking place.

But it was the perspective he gained from deep immersion in real-time processing that put him head and shoulders above many of his contemporaries.

Consider for a moment the immense potential that is lost year after year, simply because children with similar abilities and passions are not afforded opportunities for immersion along with the deep insights this type of experience typically affords.

And that brings me back to 4-H.

We hear talk of youth development groups such as 4-H becoming passé.   Quite the contrary: Grassroots youth programs have a unique potential to provide children, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, with opportunities that will secure lifetime success and, in rare cases, achievements on par with those of Bill Gates.

And considering the quantum scientific and technological advances that followed his immersion experience, aren’t these investments worth the cost?

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.