A couple of years ago, Shannon Norwood, like most other county agents throughout Alabama wore, more than one professional hat — in her case, working with livestock and row crops.
Norwood, who holds two degrees in agronomy, also acquired a keen interest in precision agriculture — a space-age farming method that enables farmers to use orbiting satellites to apply seeds, herbicides and pesticides with pin-point accuracy.
She perceived her work with precision farming as a way to help farmers remain viable in an increasingly competitive global economy. The Alabama Cooperative Extension System's administrators had even bigger plans.
For the past few years, Sam Fowler, Extension's associate director for rural and traditional programs, had taken note of the changes overtaking farming. As he saw it, a number of factors — urbanization, mechanization and, most notably, the effects of the Information Age — had created a farm audience that was much more sophisticated and demanding of the types of services they required.
“They need someone who has in-depth knowledge and expertise within their area of agriculture, whether it's row crops or animal science — someone more knowledgeable about the subject matter than they are,” Fowler says.
Simply put, what farmers require, Fowler reasoned, are agents specializing in one field rather than the generalists who have characterized Extension work in the past.
That's why he and other administrators viewed Norwood's interest in precision farming as a match made in heaven — a way to use her more effectively in an age when the needs of farmers had become more sophisticated than ever.
In no time, Norwood was reassigned as a regional Extension agent specializing exclusively in precision farming.
Little did she know that she soon would be the vanguard of the new Extension — one in which more services will be delivered on a regional basis by agents specializing in a particular field.
Norwood has few regrets about the change. She not only considers the new approach professionally rewarding, but believes it has enabled her to become a more effective Extension educator.
“I think it's been a tremendous benefit to growers because it's given me the time I need to learn about precision farming and build a bigger knowledge base so that I can help them,” she says.
The change reflects only part of a massive commitment Extension made in October 2002 to move in a new direction, transforming itself from a primarily county-delivered system into one in which most services will be delivered on a regional basis by agents specializing in a particular field. Norwood's new area of primary focus, agronomy, is only one of 14 new priority areas that will be served primarily be regional agents working over a multi-county area.
Recently, Norwood was joined by four other agents who, like her, will be working exclusively in agronomy while serving multi-county regions in north Alabama.
Heath Potter, formerly a Lawrence County Extension agent “very active in livestock, forestry and wildlife,” now works exclusively as a regional agronomy agent within a three-county area in northwest Alabama. While conceding some kinks still have to be worked out, Potter says the producers he's already talked to have expressed enthusiasm for the new approach.
“There's a focus now. We're excited about getting together as a team and doing more for specific groups we're supposed to be serving.”
What Potter finds most exciting, he says, is the luxury of getting to spend a day with a farmer, without having to worry about those “six, seven or eight” other issues that aren't getting done.
“Under the county approach, we just didn't have those opportunities,” Potter says.
Working with other regional agents, Potter says he will be better equipped to provide hands-on training in areas where it was not practical to hold field demonstrations because of the paltry number of farmers.
But challenges remain.
Mark Hall, formerly a Madison County Extension coordinator who is now working as a regional agronomy agent, perceives the biggest challenge will be very similar to what every Extension agent faces when first encountering new responsibilities - “building those relationships with farmers so they'll feel comfortable calling us.”