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.

We Can’t Go On this Way, but We Never Do

Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly, author, futurist and philosopher of technology, who believes the current agricultural model ultimately will evolve into a more heterogeneous, decentralized model.

This has been a good week for deep, serendipitous insights.

Shortly after reading George Monbiot’s column attesting to the shortfalls of the green movement, I came across an intriguing passage by Kevin Kelly, one of the world’s renowned futurists and philosophers of technology.

His book, What Technology Wants, is one of a handful of books that should serve as operating manuals for Cooperative Extension’s transformation into a 21st century knowledge organization and one that I highly recommend to my colleagues.

The passage further underscored to me that people even within our ranks are not fully aware of the benefits Extension secured for Americans and human beings in general by helping transform subsistence farming into the model that prevails today.

As 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, valuable things, which have contributed immensely to the quality of life on this planet.

“It feeds our longevity to keep inventing and, ultimately, this food system fuels the increase in population that generates increasing numbers of ideas,” Kelly says.

As I said, it’s a fascinating and important point and one of which few people, even Extension professionals, are fully aware.

Bear in mind, though, that this applies as much to the detractors of agriculture as it does the rest of us.  Even as they criticize modern agriculture’s overreliance on petroleum, they scarcely consider how much this model contributed to a social and economic order that, in addition to feeding them, also provided adequate levels of education to conceive and marshal such sophisticated critiques.

The current farming model has carried humanity a long way — a distance that would have been impossible via subsistence farming.

Even so, as Kelly is the first to concede, modern farming, despite its colossal achievements, is beset with challenges.  As he stresses, the current model is heavily dependent on a monoculture of only a few staple food crops, which have required “pathological degrees of intervention with drugs, pesticides and herbicides, soil disturbance and overreliance on cheap petro fuels for both energy and nutrients.”

In time, though, elements of a new, decentralized model will emerge, he says — one less monocultural and petroleum dependent than the current one and that perhaps even encompasses “hyperlocal, specialized farms,” manned either by a truly global workforce or by “smart, nimble worker robots.”

Again, most Extension agricultural experts likely would not find much with which to take issue in any of these statements.  Like Kelly, most could conceive of an emerging “convivial agriculture” sitting atop industrial agriculture, much as the current model sits atop older forms of subsistence farming.

Likewise, they, like Kelly, could conceive the current farming model, by remaining the most productive supplier of food on a global scale, as one that continues to fill a critical role for the foreseeable future and forming an integral part of the emerging model.

Speaking of passages, Kelly also shares a quote from another intellectual hero of mine, Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves.

“If we go on as we are, it’ll be very difficult to sustain things,” Ridley says. “But we won’t go on as we are. That’s what we never do.”

“We always change what we do and we always get much more efficient at using things — energy, resources, etc.”

These are valuable messages, ones that we should be sharing with our diverse users and stakeholders.

The current agricultural model is undergoing a significant overhaul to accommodate the demands of the emerging global knowledge economy of the 21st century.

So are we.

But that’s the business we’re in.  As Kelly says, “We don’t go on as we are. We address the problems of tomorrow not with today’s tools but with the tools of tomorrow.”

Extension Lessons from Joe Friday

Joe Friday of Dragnet fame: I couldn’t get enough of the guy — or his unfailing partner, Bill Gannon — growing up.

I still chuckle a bit recalling those brass-tacks morality lessons Friday (portrayed by Jack Webb) and Gannon (played by Harry Morgan) freely imparted to whatever social malcontents they were dealing with at the time.

One of their most memorable appeals was served up in The Big Departure, an episode that first aired in March 7, 1968, about four aspiring teenagers who engage in petty larceny of local businesses to finance and provision their own anti-materialistic, utopian country on one of the islands off the California Coast.

In response to one teenager’s contention that they didn’t understand, Friday and Gannon serve a few choice words about how much better he and his collaborators fared in comparison to earlier generations.

“More people are living better right here than anywhere else ever before in history,” Friday says.

“You’re taller, stronger, healthier and better educated — and you’ll live longer than the last generation, and we don’t think that’s altogether bad,” Gannon adds, also pointing out to the kids that none of them had likely seen a quarantine sign in their neighbors’ door warning about diphtheria, scarlet fever or whooping cough.

“Probably none of your classmates are crippled with polio,” he adds.  “You don’t see many mastoid scars anymore.”

To be sure, this sort of optimism would strike many 21st century Americans as hidebound, if not threadbare.  In the midst of recent history’s longest running economic crisis, coupled with a seemingly intractable energy impasse, frustration and resignation seem to have trumped optimism.

Still, I think the two TV cops strike at an essential truth not only for the 60s but also for today: Scientific achievement has carried us a long way, and it will likely carry us an even longer way in the future.

While few advocate their own starter countries, plenty of technological naysayers remain in this century heaping scorn on practices that have secured all of us immense comfort and efficiency.

At the top of the list of these practices: scientific farming methods — yes, those very methods that have been promoted by Extension agents and specialists and other land-grant personnel for more than a century.

To be sure, these farming methods have created one of the most diverse, interdependent economic sectors in the world — a fact that causes some farm critics extreme consternation.

Yet, as Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, stresses, the interdependence and trade that has followed the adoption of these practices have ensured that all of us are immensely better fed and healthier than our 18th century forebears.

As an example, he compares the trebling of wheat prices that occurred between 2006 and 2008 to a similar price hike that occurred from 1315 to 1318.

During the early 14th century, when Europe was sparsely populated, farming was entirely organic and food miles were short, mass starvation and even outbreaks of cannibalism ensued.  Indeed, until the advent of railways, it was cheaper for people to become refugees than to pay the steep prices to transport food into a deprived district.

Today, consumers benefit from a global wheat market in which somebody somewhere has something to sell.  The end result: typically modest price fluctuations but no mass starvation.

The take-home message: The interdependence that has partly grown out of these scientific farming methods has helped spread risk.

To be sure, farming faces its share of challenges.  For the past generation, Extension educators throughout the country have been busily engaged helping the nation’s row-crop and livestock producers build a new farming model that merges scientific farming methods with sustainable practices.

We face challenges, daunting challenges.  Even so, it behooves all of us Extension educators not only to reflect on our achievements but also to defend them with the same zeal as Joe Friday.

Advice to the President, Lessons for Cooperative Extension

Two points David Brooks raised today in discussing President Obama’s political prospects following the mid-term elections not only made a deep impression on me but also raise major implications for the future of the nation and of Cooperative Extension.

In terms of the President’s emphasis on cultural values, Brooks offered this advice:

Culturally, he will have to demonstrate that even though he comes from an unusual background, he is a fervent believer in the old-fashioned bourgeois virtues: order, self-discipline, punctuality and personal responsibility.

From a public policy standpoint, he says the President will also have to stress the importance of restructuring in an era when growing numbers of Americans fear that the nation’s best years are behind it.

Companies like Ford cut wasteful spending while doubling down on productive investment. That’s exactly what the nation has to do over all. There have to be cuts, the president could say, in unaffordable pension commitments, in biofuel subsidies and useless tax breaks. But there also have to be investments in things that will produce a vibrant economy for our children: a simpler tax system with lower rates on investment; more scientific research; a giant effort to improve Hispanic graduation rates; medical courts to rationalize the malpractice system and so on.

It’s neither my intention to praise nor blame President Obama.  My priority as blogger is to identify current issues that have direct bearing on the movement I’ve come to love and cherish: Cooperative Extension.  And these two points have a direct bearing on Extension.

The cultural values of self-discipline, punctuality and personal responsibility have been critical to this nation’s long-term success.  4-H has played an indispensable role in propagating and instilling these values in five generations of American youth.

To put it another way, I believe that 4-H’s longstanding role — instilling young people with the skills they need to function in the real world — remains more than simply a quaint holdover from earlier decades.  This historical role remains no less critical — critical to the long-term survival of our society.  4-H educators and volunteers should make no bones about this fact.  They should proclaim it loudly, unapologetically and proudly.

Brooks’s second point about productive investment must also be taken to heart.  In historical terms, Cooperative Extension is one of this country’s most significant productive investments.  The role it served in rendering farming more efficient contributed directly to this nation’s reaching the pinnacle of world agricultural and industrial leadership in the 20th century.

Despite all this talk of Extension’s best years being behind us, we still have an essential niche to fill in terms of productive investment.

One of the greatest challenges this nation will face with the next few years is balancing sustainable practices with farm profitability and efficiency. If you doubt that, consider this quote from Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves:

This is what it would take to feed nine billion people in 2050: at least a doubling of agricultural production driven by a huge increase in fertilizer use in Africa, the adoption of drip irrigation in Asia and America, the spread of double cropping to many tropical countries, the use of GM crops all across the world to improve yields and reduce pollution, a further shift from feeding cattle with grain to feeding them with soybeans, a continuing relative expansion of fish, chickens and pig farming at the expense of beef and sheep  (chickens and fish convert grain into meat three times as efficiently as cattle; pigs are in between) — and a great deal of trade, not just because the mouths and the plants will not be in se same place, but also because trade encourages specialization in the best-yielding crops for any particular district.

Needless to say, the need for a “great deal of trade” inevitably will be accompanied by a great need for agronomists, soil scientists, entomologists, animal scientists and agricultural economists — experts who are not only fully engaged in classrooms and laboratories but also in face-to-face interactions with producers who will  comprise the vanguard of this new green revolution.

Back to Brooks’s phrase: productive investment.  The demands of mid-century agriculture will require a colossally large productive investment, not only in terms of research but also in active engagement with producers.

That’s one of the reasons why I believe Cooperative Extension’s best years are ahead of it rather than behind it: We will soon be called upon again to make an enormous productive investment in this nation’s and the world’s future.

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.