Tag Archives: scientific farming

Building a Cadre of Cooperative Extension Public Intellectuals

Rodin's ThinkerTime after time as I was growing up, my mother would remind me of the old maxim “actions speak louder than words.”

For the past couple of years, I’ve been writing about the paramount need to produce a cadre of Extension public intellectuals.  Recently, I’ve felt the urge to follow my mom’s old maxim and back up those words with action.

I and a couple of colleagues put the final touches a draft proposal to develop a nationwide training effort with the goal of producing a cadre of Cooperative Extension public intellectuals.

Yes, I know: Public Intellectual is a highfalutin’ term. Even so, I think an understanding of public intellectuals and the role that they necessarily must serve in our own ranks is critical to our future.

Public intellectuals are essentially defined as the thinkers, usually journalists and academics, who not only articulate but also offer constructive solutions to the most pressing public policy issues of the day.

Two critical concerns inspired this proposal: first, the fact that Extension’s longstanding role as a scientific vanguard is under serious threat.

One example of how this threat is played out is the growing disdain, especially among many of this nation’s public intellectual class, for what has historically been known as scientific farming practices.

A fight is ensuing between those who believe that scientific farming techniques present a dire threat to the environment and those who, despite a few misgivings about current practices, are nonetheless convinced that scientific farming methods will continue to secure for us what they have in the past: a sufficient, highly diverse and cost-effective food supply.

Most of us associated with agricultural outreach understand the acute suffering that would accompany a wholesale abandonment of scientific farming methods.  The problem is that legions of ordinary Americans do not.

Without a doubt, the farming model that emerges within the next few decades will be a hybridized one, incorporating elements of the older model as well as many characteristics of a more sustainable model, though scientific farming practices will comprise the cornerstone of this new model.

Ordinary Americans need to understand this.  Moreover, they need to know the high stakes associated with these issues.  That is why I believe the times are crying out for a cadre of Extension public intellectuals: educators with the requisite training and communicative skills to put such complex issues into perspective on behalf of rank-and-file Americans.

Cooperative Extension’s history has uniquely equipped us for such a role. We have built an impressive record functioning as grassroots scientific vanguards, not only showing people how to put scientific knowledge to practical use but also building consensus for change.

As I see it, though, this longstanding vanguard role has not been developed to its fullest potential — the second reason behind this proposal.  While we have been highly effective players at the grassroots throughout much of our 100-year history, we have not carried over this success to national levels of discourse.  Simply put, we have not been as successful engaging this nation’s leading public intellectuals at major daily newspapers and networks and, more recently, influential social media venues.

We need to begin cultivating the talents of our best scientific educators.  We must train a new national cadre of Extension educators to become spokespersons in the fullest measure of this term — people fully equipped to capitalize on opportunities to educate our diverse audiences about food-and-fiber issues and other highly complex, largely misunderstood issues — public intellectuals.

This cadre of spokesperson must be trained to become effective social media users, skilled op-ed writers and highly effective and compelling speakers — simply put, a vanguard of educators fully equipped to engage other intellectuals at the levels of discourse and to provide insights in deeply enriched contexts.

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From Crusader to Conciliator: Extension’s Coming Transformation

"Agriculture Move Onward"

"Agriculture Moves Onward." The final mural of the Historical Panorama of Alabama Agriculture and a testament to the boundless faith Americans once invested in the march of scientific/technological progress.

Some 100 years ago, Extension educators were crusaders in the truest contemporary meaning of that word.

We were crusaders for a cause, the cause of scientific/technological progress in farming and homemaking. Extension educators were dispatched to every rural hamlet in America to impart the message of scientific and technological progress.

In manner of speaking, we were techno-crusaders.

Perhaps no other artistic rendering better expresses our techno-crusader role than the final mural of the Historical Panorama of Alabama Agriculture.  Commissioned along with the other murals for display at the 1939 Alabama State Fair, it underscored how adopting scientific and technological practices on the farm would secure a veritable cornucopia of material goods and creature comforts.

This faith in scientific and technological achievement was not confined to Extension educators. Americans in general once possessed an almost boundless faith in science’s potential for securing material comforts and, with it, a generous measure of human happiness.

As a one of my Extension colleagues once noted, Americans as recently as the 1950s routinely passed highway billboards unabashedly proclaiming “Better Things for Better Living…Through Chemistry” without so much as blinking an eye.

Such a message today would invariably be interpreted as a twisted joke.

How times have changed: Extension educators are now struggling to navigate their way across an increasingly steep, jagged divide between techno-skeptics, who harbor a deep mistrust of technology and its long-term implications, and techies, who, despite some misgivings, generally believe that each technological advance ultimately works to secure a better life and world for all of us.

But why should we be surprised by this? Science, after all, is as much a process of refinement as it is of discovery.  With this refinement has come a clearer understanding of the environmental costs associated with scientific and technological progress.  Scientific farming practices have proven to be no exception.

To be sure, we Extension educators should take immense pride in what we have built within the last century.

As one of the world’s premier philosophers of technology, Kevin Kelly, stresses in his recent book, What Technology Wants, the highly mechanized, petrol-dependent farming model we helped construct in the last century has been indispensable in many respects.  It provided the “foundation of leisure” that promoted a drastic increase in population, which, in turn, generated the intellectual insights that define much of the 21st century.

Nevertheless, Kelly is one of a number of techno-pundits who foresee the inevitable rise of a new, more sustainable, possibly even more decentralized, farming model, though one that incorporates many of the scientific and technological attributes of the current model.

In building a new model that incorporates elements of scientific/technological farming and sustainability, the need for Extension educators will be more critical than ever.

Who but Extension is equipped for this task?  Our intimate understanding of the current scientific farming model provides us with one critical insight that many green proponents are now only reluctantly beginning to accept: replacing the prevailing farming model with a wholly sustainable model is not only impractical but impossible given the present state of science.

We have a indispensable role to play in the future not only in bridging a divide between hostile camps but also in helping articulate the elements of this new farming model, piece by piece.

Consequently, we will be called upon to abandon our traditional role of technological crusader and to accept a new role as technological conciliator.

Our new role as conciliator not only will be confined to the farm sector.  There will be an increasing need for public intellectuals within Extension — people equipped to explain to the general public how this new farming model will be expressed and how it ultimately will affect them.

Herein lies an enormous opportunity for Extension — an opportunity for profound organizational transformation.

Future generations of Extension educators may reflect on this chapter of our history as our finest hour.

Of Southerners, Yankees and Cooperative Extension Work

I’m a native-born Southerner — a Southerner down to the very marrow of my bones, as I like telling friends.

Excuse the pun, but I make no bones about that fact.

Even so, at this point in my life, I have little patience with this notion, prevalent even today among some self-identified Southerners, that Southern is synonymous with agrarianism.

Unlike a lot of Southerners, I’m glad my ancestors were dragged kicking and screaming into the 19th, the 20th, and, ultimately, the 21st centuries.

I’m sitting here today on a university campus typing these words because the people who ultimately emerged victorious during the Civil War — the Yankees, as we call them down here — put a series of factors into play that forced my yeoman Southern ancestors off 40-acre farms.

Among these factors: land-grant universities, secured through congressional passage of the Morrill Act of 1862, which, I regret to say, was secured only because the Southern states were not represented at the time in Congress; the Hatch Act of 1887, which equipped these land-grant universities with facilities through which applied agricultural research could occur; and, finally, the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which created a statewide network of educators to ensure that the practical results of this research were adequately disseminated to the laboring and farming classes.

For these and other similar reforms, I am eternally grateful, notwithstanding the fact that I remain an unrepentant Southerner in many respects.

If you think about it, the material advantages we take so much for granted in the western world are due to the success of previous generations in drawing more people away from the farm into factories, ultimately securing what we perceive today as the fruits of modernity. 

I was reminded of this a couple of days ago reading a New York Times article about ongoing efforts to secure clean water for Africans.

As it happens, one of the biggest challenges facing many 21st century Africans is strikingly similar to the ones westerners faced until comparatively recently.

“Getting water is staggeringly burdensome — in southwestern Ethiopia, I met women who spend eight hours a day or more each day traveling back and forth to the river with 50-pound yellow plastic jerry cans on their backs,” writes Tina Rosenberg.  “The need to help mom while she fetches water is a primary reason that many girls don’t go to school.

“Fetching water enslaves women.”

If any phrase aptly summarizes the role scientific progress has served in emancipating human beings, it’s that one: “Fetching water enslaves women.”

Back-breaking human labor has enslaved earlier generations men and women in the South and throughout every corner of the earth.   The development and dissemination of scientific farming methods have put an end to much of this slavery.

These methods have advanced the human condition in two crucial ways: by rendering farming more efficient, it freed up increasing numbers of people to move to urban environments not only where they have a better chance at improving their educational and economic fortunes but also at exchanging ideas with increasing numbers of other people.

As you may have guessed, I’m relating all of this to drive home what I consider to be an essential lesson about the enduring value Cooperative Extension work.

This growing clamor for locally grown food and against so-called industrial farming has worked to demoralize many our ranks, leading us to believe that this century-long investment in building history’s most efficient farming system has amounted to a wasted effort.  It shouldn’t. 

As inevitably happens with intellectual fads, the reality — that is to say, the limits — of organic farming and locavorism already is sinking in among a growing number of commentators and policy makers.

The fact remains that we are up against a set of challenges remarkably similar to what our great-grandparents faced a century ago: to develop new scientific farming methods to feed billions more people — this time with considerably reduced inputs, particularly water and nonrenewable energy.

But this only speaks to part of the truth: Human progress has always on depended on specialization — on the constant refinement of scientific research to render labor more efficient, thereby ensuring that more specialization and, ultimately, more intellectual exchange follows.

Cooperative Extension developed into one of the most successful educational movements in human history because of the ways it has contributed to this effect.

Some people fear that our biggest challenge is to avoid becoming irrelevant.  I disagree — wholeheartedly. For the role we have served in advancing human beings down the current path, our mission remains more relevant than ever.

Our biggest challenge isn’t mission but rather how we carry it out — our outreach methods.  These must be refined and updated to enhance what we do best: rendering the lives and livelihoods of our clients more efficient, freeing them to make more valuable use of their time — in other words, advancing human progress.