Tag Archives: Matt Ridley

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.

Skepticism is Fatal: A Case for Social Media Adoption

Like it or not — and, frankly, many of us don't — a new Extension communication and outreach platform is being constructed on the old one.

Skepticism: I run across it occasionally as I discuss the absolute importance of social media adoption to the future of Cooperative Extension.

A few Extension educators steadfastly maintain that the learning curve required to master social media is not only too time consuming but also that social media have the potential of eroding personal contacts with their clients.

I think they’re wrong.  They’re wrong because the old way of doing things is untenable.  It’s untenable because a new platform is being built on the older 20th century outreach platform that our forebears first began building a century ago to serve our clients.  Yes, face-to-face contacts will continue to play an integral part in this new platform, though part of something even bigger.

Note that I use the term platform instead of more common terms such as models and networks.  I think it more accurately describes what we’re dealing with today. Platform is a more apt term to describe the open, highly fluid ecosystems of knowledge that form the basis for present and future innovation, many of which are being built — or stacked — on older ones.

That’s precisely what’s happening within Extension: a new outreach platform is being built on the old one. This fact holds some disturbing implications for those in our ranks who have not adjusted the new platform — it means that, professionally speaking, they in the basement.

This explains why social media adoption is more than simply a professional add-on or option.  It’s critical to our survival.  We’ve got to acquire the skills to operate effectively within this new outreach platform.

If we don’t acquire the skills — if we don’t become fully engaged, fully networked professionals — we will not survive the future.

A Fatal Illusion

As I see it, the people who resist social media adoption suffer from a kind of fatal illusion.  They mistakenly assume that the old 20th century communications order will carry over into the future or, at least, that enough of it will remain to ensure their survival.

Things are not working out that way. Granted, some elements of the old outreach platform will comprise parts of the new one.  Even so, the new platform that is emerging bears scant resemblance to the old one and operates on several entirely new premises and expectations.

Also, the old platform was seriously hampered by bandwidth limitations— bandwidth essentially defined as the amount of data that can be carried from one point to another in a given period of time.

Because of these limitations, the old approach required information brokers.  The task fell to people like us to plan and push educational programs down to our clients through this relatively narrow bandwidth — small wonder why plan-and-push delivery methods comprised the cornerstone of our 20th century outreach platform.

However, “that was then and this is now. “ The Internet and, more recently, social media, have all but swept away this old information order.

Something remarkable has followed: liberation.  The people we once knew as clients are liberating themselves from Extension educators and other information brokers.

They are liberating themselves by learning how to seek and retrieve information on their own.  They are no longer routinely turning to us and other traditional information brokers, such as reference librarians, for essential knowledge.

Think about it: These liberated audiences are no longer clients in any conventional sense.  They are no longer passive subjects waiting to be enlightened by professional educators.  They are developing their own venues for intellectual exchange with or without professional educators.

As futurists and social critics Steven Johnson and Matt Ridley have stressed time and again in their writings, the wellspring of human progress stems from fluid, open environments — the places where ideas in the course of meeting, mating and morphing produce new insights and innovations.

That is precisely what is taking place among these newly liberated clients: They’re building their own platforms: fluid networks where they  are engaging, discussing, sharing serendipitous insights and providing valuable feedback.

Like it or not — and, frankly some of us don’t — these liberated clients are creating their own highly fluid, open-source learning environments.   New media are enabling them to carry on open, highly generative, highly rewarding exchanges without us.

This new reality should drive home a hard truth to all of us: By turning our backs on these open, highly generative discussions, some of us are depriving our ourselves of many of the critical insights that will influence our professions in the future.

Refusing to adopt social media is like exiting off a high-speed six-lane Interstate Highway onto a service road and driving at a snail's pace.

Here’s another way of looking at it: Ignoring these emerging social networks is like exiting off a six-lane, high-speed Interstate onto a two-lane service road and driving at a snail’s pace.

We’re behaving like tortoises instead of hares. And forget all the endearing folklore associated with tortoises:  Within this new communications environment, hares will always trump tortoises.

The hares shall inherit the earth.