When your father had a question about new farming practices, he likely talked to the county Extension agent. It’s an even better bet that your grandfather did. What about you?
Some will say yes. Others may answer that it depends, and still others may say no. It’s not your father’s or grandfather’s agriculture anymore. But many Extension educators remain trusted sources of information.
If you still rely on input from your county Extension educator, it’s likely because he or she figured out how to do the same job your grandfather’s county agent did, only using modern technology. Instead of sending you a letter, you probably get information through email, perhaps with links to resources. And if your Extension educator visits, maybe he or she brings a drone so you can zero in on a weed problem.
Bob Nielsen, the Purdue Extension corn specialist for 40 years, reminded his cohorts about where Extension came from in a seminar in December. He went back to when the Cooperative Extension Service was established.
The focus then was doing research on practical applications of discoveries at land-grant universities and telling people about those results. The goal was educating farmers on applying new practices that stemmed from research. By doing so, farmers could earn more profit and improve their quality of living.
Nielsen applied those principles, carrying out practical research, much of it on real farms in later years. At the same time, he educated graduate students who would become the researchers of tomorrow. He also took the results to all corners of Indiana, educating and teaching, whether there were five people, 50 or 500 listening.
“Our job is to take information to the public, and continue taking it to them,” Nielsen says.
Over the past decade, some have questioned whether there is still a place for Extension. You don’t need a county Extension educator to pull recommendations off the internet. Plus, companies have established their own networks of agronomists and research.
“I firmly believe Extension will continue to be an important player at Purdue and in Indiana,” Nielsen says. “Extension can and will remain relevant in the future.”
Why? Because there will always be a need for someone to help interpret the newest research findings and help apply those findings in practical ways. Farmers have come to rely on trusted advisers, and if anything, that will become more important.
As farming becomes more specialized, someone must help interpret the technology. One farmer won’t be able to keep on top of every aspect of 21st century agriculture by themselves.
For the Extension educator to be the one the farmer trusts, he or she must adapt to change too. While doing it, that person must remain as unbiased as possible — that is the advantage Extension brings to the table.
No one denies that will be a challenge. After polling Extension specialists around the country, Nielsen notes that many are wrestling with how Extension and ag business can work together to serve farmers. A sizable number of respondents recognize its both a challenge and opportunity for Extension.
Why is Nielsen so confident Extension will remain viable? He says it’s because Extension has always faced challenges. It has met them before, and it will meet them again. The goal — helping the current and future generations of farmers — is too important to do anything but succeed.
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