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Will Extension get another 100 years?

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  • If you missed it earlier in May, the nation’s Extension system turned 100 years old. I wonder if it’ll get another 100 years. If it does, it’ll be because of its people.

Weekly, if not daily during certain times of the year, successful farmers I speak to tell me their one tried-and-true trick for success: “I pretty much follow Extension recommendations and what my agent tells me,” they say.

If you missed it earlier in May, the nation’s Extension system turned 100 years old. I wonder if it’ll get another 100 years. If it does, it’ll be because of its people.

The Smith-Lever Act was signed into law May 8, 1914. I looked up a copy. It’s a boring read; hard to understand as it is presented in bureaucratic, legal form. It is something I really need a good Extension person to read, digest, understand and then explain to me in simple, workable terms.

I’ll do my best Extension impression here and give you the Act’s basic intro: Smith-Lever created a framework that so far has stood the test of time to get useful information, real science-based or proven ideas and practices, to people who can use it to make their lives or the lives of others better. More often than not, the information is readily available free or it comes with a small fee.

Not a bad deal.

But more than anything, the Act revolutionized how a country approaches its most basic needs: food, fiber and healthy land to make it all happen. The U.S. now has the strongest, most productive agriculture industry in the world, and Extension and land-grants can take a center-stage bow in helping to make that happen.

I was locked in the orb of the Extension system for a dozen years when I worked at a Southern land-grant university. (I’ll let you guess which one, but it’s easily known if you ever heard my accent say the common name for a canine companion.)

I’ve seen behind the Extension/land-grant curtain. It’s not all pretty. Anything with bureaucracy is not always pretty. But Extension at its best is people at their best. It’s simply elegant: a knowledgeable person talking to another person with great questions, and together they solve a problem. And in our case this great, revolutionary exchange usually takes place standing in a field or leaning on the back of truck.

Extension is based on people -- people readily available to talk to; people who present useful information to other people; people who learn from other people and build on what people before them knew, tweaking and flexing ideas to work for an individual person.

The exchange goes both ways. Agriculture Extension people openly admit they learn as much from farmers as they do from anyone else. A good Extension person collects information they can then mold and form to help solve problems. They don’t care where the information comes from as long as it is good, sound and verifiable.

Extension has challenges this day. Let’s be honest. It will likely more and more have to prove its service more directly to urban policymakers, the majority who holds the public’s purse strings, and who know little of the importance of agriculture and land management.

And technology helps get great information into the right hands, so it should be embraced and used. But let’s be honest again: Technology far too often replaces people. That’s the tragic irony.

There are fewer Extension people now than 20 or 30 years ago, in most cases. Attrition through lack of funding and advanced information technology has done that. That’s real and that’s OK. Extension is still strong. But if it gets another 100 years, it’ll only get it on the shoulders of its people.

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