Tag Archives: The Rational Optimist

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.

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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.