He’s even invented a term for this new standard: HRT, shorthand for holistic real-time response, which, he contends, best expresses the dual challenges of 21st century farming:  responding quickly but also in ways that help farmers make decisions within a context in which all the critical factors are considered and carefully weighed.

“Farmers no longer have the luxury of focusing only on the immediate task — of making decisions in a vacuum,” Monks says. “They have to be constantly thinking beyond the task at hand, anticipating how these decisions will affect other aspects of their operations.”

“The really remarkable thing is that farmers are not just planning according to a 10- or 15-year horizon but are looking even a century into the future, thinking about how changes are going to affect agriculture over generations,” he says.

Paul Mask, Alabama Extension assistant director for agriculture, forestry and natural resources, shares Monks’ sentiments.  He’s reminded of this new farming reality whenever he enters a farm shed and sees a $3-million piece of machinery sitting unused. 

“If you had something worth that much in a factory, it would be used several times a day, and the fact that something this valuable is left idle for long stretches of time on a farm underscores how sophisticated and challenging farming has become within the last few decades,” Mask says.

Little wonder why Monks’ acronym, HRT, has not only become something of a war cry of Alabama Extension row-crops team but also the basis for much of the in-service training that Extension agents have received within the last few years.

“The thinking reflected now has been around for a long time,” Mask said.

“What’s changed is the critical need for Extension crops experts to become more focused — to understand row crop farming not only as a system of interrelated parts but to anticipate trends before they play out into full-blown crises,” he says.

Just as farming has become more interrelated, the in-service training provided to Extension professionals has become more multidisciplinary to reflect these new realities, with special emphasis on how these different disciplines — agronomy, plant pathology and entomology — relate to each other within a changing farming environment.

Monks, though, is the first to stress that the holistic part of this standard must still be balanced out by real-time response. To better ensure they are both proactive and reactive to producers’ needs, members of the Alabama Extension crops team are also ramping up their presence in social media venues.

Monks and 13 other Alabama Extension specialists representing several disciplines launched their AU Crop Specialists (@AlabamaCrops) Twitter account a couple of months ago and have already garnered almost 90 followers, including several key farm publication editors who are helping spread the word.  They are also tweeting with the hashtag #Alacrops to extend their reach to Twitter users with timely crop-related information.

Many of these specialists have also started twitter accounts and blogs of their own to reach growers.

Monks and the other specialists also use @AlabamaCrops to point to the Alabama Extension Crops team’s Website, Alabamacrops.com, which serves as a comprehensive resource for Alabama row-crop producers.