Tag Archives: Smith-Lever Act

Lessons from William and Kate

I’m an American.  Like many of my compatriots, I have a hard time grasping the appeal of the monarchy in this democratic, egalitarian age.

Nevertheless, desiring to spend some quality time with my daughters, I bounded out of bed this morning at 3 a.m. to watch the Royal wedding.

I ended up drawing some lessons from it — the wedding, that is — lessons for Cooperative Extension’s future.

To be sure, there are some interesting parallels between the British monarchy and Cooperative Extension.

The monarchy once wielded an immense amount of power and influence, much as we did within a different context.

Now it’s striving to adjust to a new era in which it commands considerably less power and influence.

To a significant degree, so are we.

The monarchy has been improvising furiously since at least the English Civil War.

They’ve improvised their way through all manner of social, cultural and political upheavals and through a series of murky, unwieldy institutional arrangements that would make an ordinary American’s head spin.

Despite it all, they have secured an enduring institutional presence throughout the world. The monarchy even managed to adapt to the decline of the British Empire by carving out new realms and new working relationships within the Commonwealth context that eventually emerged.

That’s part of the genius of the monarchy, I suppose, and that’s partly why I ended up drawing lessons and even a measure of inspiration from the wedding.

We are an old institution — granted, not as old as the British monarchy — that has been improvising its way through murky institutional arrangements for more than a century.

We started out a patchwork of outreach movements that was  cobbled together and joined with the nation’s land-grant universities.   Eventually, we evolved into one of the most successful outreach programs in history, one that ultimately formed an integral and vital component of the land-grant mission.

As it turned out, these murky institutional arrangements provided rather ideal conditions within which we could adapt and grow over time.

In a manner of speaking, we’ve constructed our own realms reaching from the grassroots all the way up to the national level.

Much like the 21st century monarchy, we are being called upon again to rethink our identity and our mission as we forge new partnerships within a radically altered context.

It’s also worth reflecting on how the wedding marks a significant departure from the past: the first union between a senior royal prince and a commoner in some 350 years. The sight of the young prince marrying an attractive, assertive, self-confident commoner has breathed new life into a millennium-old institution.

“The monarchy is back!” proclaimed one obviously delighted British-born CNN correspondent.

I hope that one day, in the not-too-distant future, a journalist or columnist will offer a similar characterization of Cooperative Extension. That, of course, will depend on whether we learn to improvise — to blend old with new  — to build a 21st century outreach model that incorporates the very best elements of the model we constructed during the previous century.

That is the take-home message I carried away from this early morning event: that the times are  not only changing but are also calling on us to undertake a radical departure of our own — a radical departure from the way we currently view  the world and our place in it.

Will we summon the courage to undertake that departure?

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Driving Home the Sustainability-Plus Theme to Funding Sources

Alabama youngsters greeting an alligator at the 4-H Environmental Center in Columbiana.

Following is a considerably revised version of a piece I wrote on sustainability-plus earlier this week in response to the federal funding crisis. This version was written specifically for our Extension county coordinators to use in their local media.

I’ve felt strongly for some time that Extension’s growing emphasis on sustainability-plus is one of our greatest assets — certainly during this critical time as we work to remind funding sources of our continued relevance. Increasingly, our efforts are no longer devoted solely to sustaining natural resources but also to sustaining social, cultural and financial assets.

Interestingly, many of the state’s governors are grasping the sustainability-plus concept, using sustainability to encompass a much wider public policy range.

For a number of reasons, Extension is uniquely positioned to benefit from this changed perspective.  This issue is more widely explored in an earlier piece: Sustainability: The Future of Cooperative Extension Programming.

Feel free to use this material in any way you please.

Help Us Sustain a Critical Resource

If these lean times have done one thing, it is to put Americans into what one New York Times columnist, Roger Cohen, describes as a “different mental place.”

If you doubt that, undertake a Google search of recent state-of-the-state addresses around the country.  It would reveal the extent to which this new mindset has taken hold of Americans from one end of this country to the other.

In many of these addresses, governors used “sustainability” to underscore in these austere times how effective stewardship must encompass all aspects of our lives, not just the environment.

Newly installed Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder used his address to roll out a new sustainable business model, while New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie stressed the urgency of putting unemployment policy on a “long-term sustainable path.”

Meanwhile, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled a Cleaner, Greener Communities initiative to provide competitive grants to encourage grassroots sustainable growth strategies.

Yet, these are only a few examples among many of how these lean times are calling for new ways of thinking.

Farmers are struggling to adopt new technologies to feed an estimated 9 billion people by midcentury with less cropland and water and in the midst of spiking fuel and fertilizer costs, even as they are being pressed to develop safer, greener food production systems that emphasize organically and locally grown foods.

Meanwhile, growing strains on the U.S. healthcare system are forcing a greater emphasis on preventative health measures.  Americans increasingly are being called on to adopt effective dietary and exercise practices to safeguard against obesity-related diseases, such as hypertension and type-2 diabetes.

Fiscally-strapped communities are scrambling to develop sustainable growth strategies for housing, transportation, emissions control, and energy and efficiency.

In a sharp departure from previous decades, all levels of government are challenging Americans to address change directly rather than waiting for things to happen.

Cooperative Extension is uniquely equipped with the skill set to meet these new policy requirements and to provide Americans with critical tools for self-empowerment.

In our state, Extension already is actively engaged in grassroots efforts to help these groups and many other people follow through with the environmental, economic and lifestyle changes that these lean times require.

Yet, in the midst of this crisis, Extension is dealing with one of its own.

Looming federal budget cuts, especially to the Smith-Lever program, which supports nationwide Extension efforts, would seriously undercut efforts to transform the American agricultural sector in this critical time in history and to ensure that Americans eat healthier, nutritious foods.

Moreover, proposed cuts in the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative would drastically scale back the competitive grants that support critical efforts aimed at securing healthier, more sustainable food production systems.

We in Cooperative Extension are passionate about our role in helping Americans through these lean times.

Yet, even as government searches for cost-effective solutions, these reductions threaten to undermine ongoing efforts to help Americans meet some of the most critical challenges in our history.

Extension has a charge to keep in this age of austerity, not only in demonstrating the value of recycling and adopting greener production systems but also in showing how sustainable principles relate to every aspect of our lives.

Help us sustain this critical resource.  Contact your local congressional member and ask him or her to restore this funding.

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.

We Are Human Infrastructure!

I’ve experienced an epiphany within the last couple of weeks.

We need to be proclaiming Cooperative Extension for what it is, what it’s always been: infrastructure — not the inanimate stuff like Interstates and sprawling high-speed rail or airport terminals but the flesh-and-bone variety — human infrastructure.

I owe New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman for that insight. He used a couple of recent columns to illustrate how technological infrastructural development under way in China and India is destined to change the world as we know it.

Actually, that troubles him a bit. It’s led him to wonder whether the frantic effort under way in these countries within the past couple of decades to put this technological and educational structure in place is only the beginning of something even bigger and more far-reaching.

One thing is certain: These technologies are popping up on the Asian landscape like mushrooms after a heavy summer rain — so many, in fact, that they appear to be attracting many Chinese and Indians who otherwise would have stayed behind after graduate school to seek their fortunes in the United States.

Of course, there is every reason in the world for the Chinese and Indians to follow this path, to put more and more of this infrastructure in place: Each innovation offers more opportunity for intellectual exchange, which, in turn, creates enhanced opportunities for creativity and innovation.

Our own history has driven home this essential truth: Think of the enormous intellectual and economic advantages telegraphs provided American society in the 19th century.

That’s precisely what concerns Friedman: the threat these immense leaps in Asia pose to America’s leadership as the world’s preeminent creator and innovator.

He may be right.  The technological implications of this infrastructure to our future are immense. But so are the implications of the human infrastructure. 

Until now, we Americans have been way ahead of the curve on the human dimension.  The Morrill Act of 1862, which established land-grant institutions, followed by the Hatch Act and the Smith-Lever Act, represented a few of history’s most visionary attempts to develop human infrastructure.

Granted, some would contend that this type of human infrastructure is antiquated and that the sole emphasis in the future should be on building the same kind of infrastructure as Asia.

I disagree. We Americans run the risk of selling ourselves short if we emphasize technological infrastructure at the expense of human infrastructure.  There is still enormous value in the dense network face-to-face relationships that characterize the Cooperative Extension mission.  They have enormous potential for enhancing the connections that emerge from this newer, technological infrastructure.

I’ve already seen this through my own experiences working with Extension educators who already have successfully merged their traditional Extension roles with the emerging roles of networked educators. Yes, they’re learning how to use social media tools to expand their reach to newer, larger numbers of clientele, thereby increasing the speed and volume of intellectual exchange.

But through their traditional face-to-face relationships, they’re also enriching this dialogue.  And by enriching this dialogue, they are equipping themselves with a comparative advantage that many other educational entities lack. 

One effort that speaks volumes about the continued relevance of this older infrastructure is the work of Alabama Extension precision farming educators.  Using social media, they are drawing on the experiences they’ve gained through longstanding face-to-face relationships with row-crop producers in their regions to provide producers in other states and even other regions of the world with a clearer picture of some of the challenges they will face in adopting this new technology.

Of course, this is only one of many imaginative ways a successful marriage of older and newer infrastructure is occurring.

In this era of ultra-lean budgeting, it behooves all of us in Extension to take stock of our comparative advantages. 

We represent some of the best human infrastructure ever developed in any place of the world and at any time in history.  With some technological enhancements, we can become even better.

One other important point to bear in mind: We should be proclaiming this essential truth to the people who hold our future in their hands — our stakeholders.

What Should Comprise a Cooperative Extension Grand Narrative?

Late last week, I mentioned the value of grand organizational narratives and why constructing such a narrative is critical to the success of the Cooperative Extension mission.

We Cooperative Extension professionals have a lot to be proud of. Unfortunately, many of us, especially the younger ones, are not fully apprised of our history and the role it can and should serve in helping us understand where we have been and, most important, where we should be going.

That raises an important question:  What should constitute this grand Extension narrative?

I’ve formulated a few initial thoughts.

Working Knowledge

First, Extension educators and professionals should develop a keen awareness of and appreciation for the role Cooperative Extension has served in advancing practical knowledge.

To a significant degree, Americans put practical knowledge on the map — a considerable feat in its own right.  Not too long ago, the humanities were regarded, especially by Europeans, as the sole hallmarks of learning and culture, even as practical sciences, such as chemistry or forestry, were derided as “hick” knowledge.

Cooperative Extension educators played a major role in elevating practical knowledge to a preeminent place not only in the United States but throughout the world.

Yet, we accomplished something even more significant:  We added value to practical knowledge.  We transformed it into working knowledge by showing ordinary people how to make use of it to improve the quality of their lives and livelihoods.  By improving their quality of life, we also empowered them.

Simply put, working knowledge is value-added knowledge that enables our clients to improve their lives and livelihoods in lasting and meaningful ways.

It’s a form of practical knowledge that has been expressed many times and in many ways throughout our history.  Even before passage of the Smith-Lever Act establishing formal Cooperative Extension programs, the working knowledge concept was embodied early forerunners of Extension work — in Seaman Knapp’s demonstration projects and in Booker T. Washington’s farm demonstration wagons.

As a concept, working knowledge has the potential of providing all of us with much greater organizational clarity.

Likewise, it is a concept that we Extension educators should closely bear in mind as we strive to distinguish ourselves from among the legions of other knowledge providers on this increasingly flat world — a world that now includes nonhuman knowledge providers in the form of search engines.

We can’t compete with search engines. On the other hand, we still offer something that search engines lack: the ability to empower lives through working knowledge.  We provide our clients with knowledge in deep context, showing how the practical application of knowledge can enrich their lives in lasting, meaningful ways.

Wiki Knowledge

This working knowledge concept also positions us in another unique way.

Too an increasing degree, collaborative knowledge — so-called wiki knowledge that emphasizes the power of collaborative wisdom and learning — is being adopted by everyone from global companies to educational institutions.

Isn’t working knowledge, the collaborative, empowering knowledge that has characterized Cooperative Extension work for the last century, a forerunner of this approach?  Equally important, doesn’t this longstanding experience with working knowledge uniquely equip us for the future?

I believe the answer to both questions is a resounding yes — yet another reason why I believe the working knowledge concept should form the bedrock of the Cooperative Extension narrative.

Dialogue and Empowerment

Finally, I believe this unique approach to working knowledge puts us in another especially advantageous position.

Over the last few decades, worsening deficit problems, coupled with a host of cultural and social factors, have forced policymakers at all levels to rethink the way they deliver programs.

Consequently, the sort of top/down bureaucratic approach that once characterized public programs, whether at the federal or state level, is passé.  This has led to the formation of a new approach built on dialogue and empowerment that encourages individuals and groups to address change by making things happen themselves rather than having things happen to them.

Working knowledge should play an integral part in this approach.

This change from a traditional top/down problem-solving approach to one that emphasizes dialogue and empowerment presents Cooperative Extension educators with one of the greatest opportunities in our history to showcase distinctive working knowledge approach.

For the sake of our future, emphasizing this unique Extension experience and facility with working knowledge as well as the dialogue and empowerment that goes with it should comprise an integral part of our grand narrative.

Reports of the Demise of Cooperative Extension Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

An op-ed posted this weekend in the New York Times’s online edition is making its rounds among Alabama Cooperative Extension System professionals.

And well it should.  It speaks volumes about the cultural and economic eddies occurring around us and how Cooperative Extension should navigate within this turbid sea.

Op-ed writer Dan Barber rightly observes that Americans are demonstrating a growing fascination with raising their own food, particularly produce. 

Even so, this year’s mad dash to the garden has produced a few unintended and unfortunate consequences.   For example, in their zeal to begin raising homegrown produce, many gardening novices have turned to retail outlets for their starter plants — places such as Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart.

Even as they struggle to opt out of the globalized economic system for which they increasingly express mistrust, they continue to look toward many of the icons of this system to buy their starter tomato plants. But as they are finding, a substantial number of these plants, which were bred by large-scale operations, were infected with late blight. 

 Sobering Irony

All of this makes for sobering irony, writes Barber:

…the explosion of home gardeners — the very people most conscious of buying local food and opting out of the conventional food chain — has paradoxically set the stage for the worst local tomato harvest in memory.

Barber believes government has a role to play in helping these aspiring gardeners find their way through this confusion:

For all the new growers out there, what’s missing is not the inspiration, it’s the expertise, the agricultural wisdom and technical knowledge passed on from generation to generation. Congress recognized the need for this kind of support almost 100 years ago when it passed the Smith-Lever Act, creating a network of cooperative extension services in partnership with land-grant universities. Agricultural extension agents were sent to farms to share the latest technological advances, introducing new varieties of vegetables and, yes, checking the fields for disease.

Barber is hitting on something highly significant.  Indeed, his views comport closely with an argument I’ve been making among fellow Extension professionals:  The growing fascination with gardening and the cultural, social and economic factors that have prompted it present Cooperative Extension with an opportunity for organizational resurgence.

 Are the Wheels Coming Off?

And this involves more than just a fascination with gardening.  Among other factors, the gardening revival also reflects an increasingly pervasive view among many in society —not only among so-called kooky people — that things are not quite right in our world.   

Some have even begun to wonder if the wheels are coming off the highly sophisticated, increasingly globalized technological civilization that has emerged within the past few decades.

Yes, I’ll concede that even making such a statement may render me suspect in some quarters.  But I’m not the only one.  None other the best-selling author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman observed recently that 2008 may be remembered as the year humanity hit an impenetrable wall, when it reached the painful but unavoidable realization that the planet’s resources are unable to sustain the economic growth model that has been constructed over the last half century.

Some have already begun describing this event as “the great disruption.” Whatever the case, Friedman believes humanity may have reached a crossroad, one that will be remembered for decades, if not centuries, to come:

We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese.

We can’t do this anymore.

Closely associated with this stark realization is a mounting disdain for another facet of the current economic model: so-called discount culture, of which retail outlets such as Wal-Mart are cited as iconic examples.  A Publisher’s Weekly review of Cheap: the High Cost of Discount Culture by Ellen Ruppell Shell underscores this growing disdain:

That cycle of consumption seems harmless enough, particularly since we live in a country where there are plenty of cheap goods to go around. But in her lively and terrifying book “Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture,” Ellen Ruppel Shell pulls back the shimmery, seductive curtain of low-priced goods to reveal their insidious hidden costs. Those all-you-can-eat Red Lobster shrimps may very well have come from massive shrimp-farming spreads in Thailand, where they’ve been pumped up with antibiotics and possibly tended by maltreated migrant workers from Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam. The made-in-China toy train you bought your kid a few Christmases ago may have been sprayed with lead paint — and the spraying itself may have been done by a child laborer, without the benefit of a protective mask.

But it’s expressed in other ways too: Peak oil theory — the fear that oil reserves will effectively become depleted within the next few years — and mounting concerns about deforestation, chronic water shortages and overfishing.

I’m not interested in debating the relative merits of these views. In another forum, I would call most or even all of them into question. 

Nevertheless, all of these factors hold major implications, mostly positive, for the Cooperative Extension mission.

Yes, we and our audiences sometimes talk about Cooperative Extension being a little old-fashioned and behind the times — a little stodgy.  Now more than ever, many people, fed up with what they perceive to be the shallow glitz, if not shaky foundations, of the current global economic model, will be become more favorably disposed toward Cooperative Extension and other entities perceived as offering lifestyle alternatives such as home gardening and canning. 

I believe that — passionately.

Other Factors

Other factors playing out on a global scale also hold fascinating implications for Extension.

An Aug. 10 article in the New York Times reported how Web 2.0 already is altering the ways schools deliver educational products to their students:

Textbooks have not gone the way of the scroll yet, but many educators say that it will not be long before they are replaced by digital versions – or supplanted altogether by lessons assembled from the wealth of free courseware, educational games, videos and projects on the Web.

Hundreds of universities around the world already use share and open-source courses.  Connexions, a non-profit open-source organization associated with Rice University, is providing open-source learning to schools.

What is stopping Extension, a movement that has both specialized and excelled in this type of informal, open-source learning, from doing likewise?

We talk a lot about Extension following the fast track to extinction.  But borrowing from Twain, reports of our impending demise have been greatly exaggerated.

I contend that a number of factors are currently in play that could figure prominently in a revivified  21st century Extension mission.  These include: a mounting concern among people regarding the implications of the current economic system; a growing desire among people to take control over basic necessities such as food; and an increasing inclination to experiment with nontraditional, albeit highly accessible, forms of Web 2.0-related learning. 

 By now, I hope you see the bigger picture: We’re potentially onto something — something big.  Our challenge will be determining how to allocate resources to meet these challenges.