Tag Archives: Extension educator

The World Extension Agricultural Educators Made

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Tuskegee Institute’s famed Extension agricultural educator Thomas Campbell standing by the Movable School, one of the earliest and most successful examples of agricultural Extension work.

By all accounts, farming has traveled an astonishingly long distance in a comparative short time—a remarkable journey and technological feat owed in no small part to Extension educators.

In colonial America, farmers toiled some 78 hours a week and were trapped in an unbreakable cycle of back-breaking drudgery.  Growing in stature and strength required more food, but the physical limitations of farmers prevented them from growing it.

Beginning in the early 20th century, Extension educators helped show farmers how to produce a cheap, diverse and highly abundant food supply.

The advanced scientific farming methods that grew out of land-grant university research and that were disseminated to farmers by the growing legions of Extension educators broke the unbreakable cycle associated with older patterns of farming and changed the course of agriculture forever.

As Matt Ridley observes in his book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, one of the hallmarks of modern farming, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, staved off the deaths of millions from mass starvation as other nitrogen sources approached exhaustion.

Bodies grew larger and healthier.  For example, the average American man in 1850 stood 5 feet and 7 inches, weighed only 146 pounds, and was expected to live to be only 45.  By contrast, in 1980, the typical American man was 5 feet and ten inches, weighed 174 pounds, and was expected to live beyond 75. These statistics are among the many compiled by a study published in 2011 by a team of researchers led by Nobel Laureate Robert W. Fogel titled “The Changing Body: Health, Nutrition and Human Development in the Western World Since 1700.”

The strong Cooperative Extension emphasis on adopting farm mechanization — replacing draft animals with farm machinery — was another critical factor behind this dramatic farming transformation.  Mechanization enabled farmers to transform millions of acres into productive cropland that had previously been tied up to feed draft animals.

The abundant and comparatively cheap food supply that many of us take for granted is one of the earliest and most tangible effects of Cooperative Extension work.

Environmental Gains

Yet, as Ridley also stresses in his book, this only scratches the surface. The improved yields that have accompanied the adoption of other modern farming practices also greatly reduced the demand for cropland.

For example, 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.

More strides have been made in recent years with the adoption of new techniques, such as precision farming, which have produced drastic reductions in herbicide, pesticide and use.

As renowned futurist Kevin Kelly stresses, the current agriculture model secured something every bit as valuable as cheap, abundant food:  It also freed up time — precious time that has enabled human beings to do other things besides raising food — valuable things, which have contributed immensely to the quality of life on this planet.

The Road Ahead

What role did Extension play in these dramatic advances?  This technological revolution would not have been possible without the working relationships Extension agents cultivated with the nation’s farmers.

In spite of all these colossal achievements, modern farming is beset with challenges.  Even as farming transforms itself to feed an estimated 9.5 billion people by mid-century, growing numbers of people around the world are calling for a new farming model that requires fewer pesticides and herbicides, less soil disturbance and less reliance on nonrenewable energy resources,

Just as we did in the last century, Extension educators will be working hand in hand with farmers to build a new farming model that emphasizes both economic efficiency and environmental sustainability—a model, Ridley says, that not only will be fully equipped to feed an estimated 9 billion people comfortably but that also will achieve this using considerably less cropland, water, fuel, and chemicals.

Building a New Open-Source Extension Platform: The First Step

Construction workers on steel beams.

Extension's next big challenge: constructing a new open-source platform for the 21st century.

Based on a hefty amount of reading, discussion and reflection over the past few years, I’m more convinced than ever that Extension’s future will depend on how well it builds a new open-source platform  on behalf of its users — a platform dense enough and generative enough to stand the test of time.

How will this challenge summon Extension educators to act in the future?

For starters, I think there is no getting around one fact: the best Extension educators in the future will be topnotch aggregators and curators.  Yes, I know that there is a strong emphasis among some social network advocates on team blogging and other forms of collaborative social media outreach efforts.

I respect that view.  As a matter of fact, I agree with it.  Like all human beings, our educators bring different strengths to the table. Some are highly adept at planning and organizing meetings, while others are as prized for their ability to cultivate close working relationships with clients, partners and other stakeholders.

Both of these longstanding Extension attributes and many others will prove as valuable in the future as they have in the past.  They will be integral components of the new open-source environment we ultimately construct.

Even so, the critical skills of the future will be the ability to link vast amounts of information in new ways and to assemble them into forms that our clients can understand.

The best Extension educators will possess those skills.

Small wonder why: People need help surfing the tidal waves of words, symbols and music that wash out of their laptops, iPads and Blackberries.

It will only get worse.  Indeed, some technological pundits contend that within only a few more years the amount of Internet information will double every 72 hours — yes, I said hours, not months.

“The detached analysis of an algorithm will no longer be enough to find what we are looking for,” writes social media pundit and strategist Rohit Bhargava.

Consequently, there will be a critical need in the future for people who can help others make sense of all this information, he says.

To an increasing degree, journalists are grasping this hard truth.

As The Economist’s science and technology blog, Babbage, related recently, cobbling together a list of links is no small task.  For starters, it calls for the ability “to scan a vast range of material, determine what’s reliable, relevant and sufficiently objective” — aggregation.

Beyond that lies an even more valuable skill: the ability to arrange it in a way that works for the end user — curation.

Of course, aggregation and curation are two things Extension educators have been doing for a long time, albeit in a different context — by that I mean a pre-Web 2.0 context.

I would even go so far to argue that aggregation and curation are as deeply etched into our DNA as open-source ecology.  It’s always been our job to assimilate lots of complicated information and then put it into a form that is accessible to our clients.

The only difference now is that this critical task will become more immediate and routine.

Mind you, though, this is only the first step in a series of steps critical toward our transformation into a bona fide 21st century open-source platform.

More about that later.

More on Extension Educator’s Role as Catalyst (and Advocate)

From the mouths of farmers often comes wisdom.

I was reminded of this today writing a story for our Extension annual report.  One quote by a central Alabama cattle producer and poultry farmer underscores a point I was trying to drive home in an earlier piece: the invaluable role Extension educators serve as catalysts.

“The Alabama Cooperative Extension system introduced me to it and I wouldn’t have found out about it until several years down the road,” says central Alabama poultry and cattle producer Robby Nichols.  “It’s kind of gotten me started a little sooner than I would have.”

The “it” in this case was the GPS devise installed on his spreader truck by an Extension educator with money provided by the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association and the 50-cent Checkoff program.

At first glance, this may seem insignificant, but in these unusually lean times, a few years may be a critical factor in determining a producer’s long-term viability.

Innovation frees up time and, in many cases, labor — time and labor that, in turn, can be invested in other profitable activities, whatever these happen to be.

Within the last quarter century, that’s one of the realities that have been driven home to me as I’ve reported on farming: how the future of the family farm is as much bound up in cost-savings as it is in turning a profit.

To put it bluntly, 21st century farming has become for most producers an unremitting cost-efficiency audit.  

As I mentioned last week, this accounts for why I remain optimistic about the relevance of the Cooperative Extension mission despite the enormous challenges we face.

Farmers are as plugged into the Internet as the rest of us.  They are as readily exposed to new ideas and new ways of thinking as the rest of us. Through social networking tools, they, much like the rest of us, can swap ideas with other farmers not only in their region but also a world away.

But they still need catalysts.  They still need trained experts who see the larger picture and who can point them toward cost-effective solutions they previously haven not considered, whether because of time constraints or professional preoccupations.

Likewise, farmers, despite all this firsthand exposure to cutting-edge knowledge, remain at heart cautious business professionals, loathe to invest money in anything that could be needlessly time-consuming and cost-effective.

Like all of us from time to time, they have to be persuaded to take big leaps.   In Nichols’s case, for example, he initially expressed qualms about using GPS, fearing that implementing this technology would prove too costly an investment in terms of all the time required to learn and implement the technology.

His agent, Ken Kelley, helped allay those concerns, serving as both a catalyst and an advocate, showing Nichols how relatively painlessly GPS could be adapted to his operation.

Kelley’s persuasiveness helped seal the deal.

That’s why I’m convinced that Extension educators, despite our acute budgetary challenges, are not going away.

We have too indispensable a role to play in pointing the way.