At 68, Ron Smith may be a bit of an old dog chronologically, but professionally, he's striving to remain as agile and resourceful as a young fox.
He has to be. For almost two generations working as an Alabama Cooperative Extension System entomologist the measure of his professional success has always depended on how quickly and accurately he gets his message across to clients.
His message is insect control. His clients are farmers who have depended on his timely advice to keep virulent crop-feeding insects at bay.
Such an expenditure of time and creative energy over such a long period of time sends most people his age to the cozy comfort of their living room recliners.
Not Smith. The constantly evolving demands of cotton insect control have always kept him engaged and interested in his work.
"I've always been one of those fortunate ones who never had to deal with career burnout," Smith says. "There is no way you can burn out if things are changing all the time."
Two methods of communication
Early in his career, Smith kept his growers abreast of changes in one of two ways: Through face-to-face contacts with growers — usually county meetings held in crop fields under the parching summertime sun —or through the printed word, typically through weekly bulletins he wrote, copied and bulk mailed to county Extension offices, which, in turn, distributed them to local growers.
To be sure, slow, ponderous methods compared to the media available today.
For more than a decade, Smith also wrote a weekly column for the Southeast Farm Press.
During the 1990s, Smith also pioneered the use of an 800 number to keep farmers fully apprised of insect outbreaks and recommended control measures.
Through it all, though, Smith has always remained mindful of the need to tweak and, in some cases, to scrap entirely practices that have become outmoded.
Two recent events have prompted radical change in the way Smith reaches his clients.
The first was a professional meeting in which an expert discussed social media as a highly efficient, cost-effective way to impart essential crop-related information to producers.
"I knew then that that was the way we had to go," Smith recalls.
The second was the repeated urging of Owen Taylor, editor of the Web-based agricultural news service Agfax.com, to start a crop insects blog.
The end result is the Alabama Insect Blog, Smith's forum for keeping Alabama growers abreast of specific insect threats throughout the state as well as the measures they can take to control them.
Smith, who remains a self-described computer illiterate, often dictates dispatches directly from crop fields to his technologically savvy departmental secretary, Zandra DeLamar, who posts them to the blog.
The blog, which already is being used extensively by Agfax.com, is emerging as a premiere resource on insect control for row-crop producers throughout Alabama and even the region.
"Throughout his career, Ron has been a consummate distributor of information," Taylor says, adding that Smith grasped the value of a blog even faster than he expected.
Taylor, whose Jackson, Mississippi-based service grew out of a newsletter initially distributed to San Joaquin Valley cotton producers in 1991, says he is encouraging a variety of crop professionals to develop blogs.
However, he's found that Extension professionals are often the most amenable to change.
"What is true of Ron is true of a lot of Extension people," Taylor says. "They speak and often write in ways that are highly conducive to blogging — short, a little entertaining, but to the point."
Anne Adrian, the social media expert who first acquainted Smith with the power of blogging, has noted a similar advantage.
"One of the values of blogging really is its flexibility," Adrian says. "It allows you to write in a way that reaches people. Blogging allows people with a passionate interest in subject matter to express themselves more freely.
"Many researchers and specialists still feel compelled to write as 'the book' has taught us to, but this is no longer the way many people are accustomed to getting information."
Taylor is especially pleased at the traction the blog already seems to have acquired in the two months since its launching. For example, Googling one of the most common southern crop insect phrases — "tobacco budworm peanuts" — reveals a top search engine ranking for Smith's blog.
"It's not a big search term, perhaps, but it is interesting that he's gained a No. 1 spot within the first couple of weeks he was active," Taylor says.