When it comes to new ideas, there are many who take an “adapt or die” attitude. For others, however, the approach is “adapt and profit.”
As a whole, America’s farmers are in the latter group. At the same time steam power was being harnessed to drive the industrial revolution, steam engines were put to work threshing grain across the nation. Soon after the horseless carriage made its appearance on city streets, gasoline engines began replacing steam power and horses and mules on farms.
By the 1950s, American farmers were not only feeding the nation, they were using mechanization, improved methods of pest control and a host of other new ideas to feed much of the world.
University research and Extension have been responsible for much of the basic and applied science behind agricultural innovations. The nation’s land grant system of colleges and universities was established in 1862 with the specific mission of providing training and research in support of American agriculture and industry.
In 1914, the Extension Service was created to provide an efficient, systematic means of getting university-based information to farmers and others in rural areas.
Almost immediately, the car, the telephone, publications and newspaper articles were pressed into service by Extension agents to reach rural residents with the latest information about crop production, as well as educational programs to improve health and nutrition in rural areas.
By the 1980s, affordable personal computers and mobile phones began revolutionizing communications and business management for all Americans, including those in rural areas. Extension personnel were quick to adopt the new technology for computer-based crop production systems for farm enterprise management. One such program, Fishy software, was developed in 1982 by experiment station and Extension agricultural economists at Mississippi State University for use by catfish producers. The latest version, Fishy 9.0, is used in the management of about 30 percent of the nation’s catfish pond acreage.
For decades, the way to get help with a question about a crop, animal health, lawn care or almost any other farm or household problem was “call the county Extension office.” While county offices are still an excellent source of information, Extension agents and specialists can be reached almost anywhere via their cell phones or on the Internet.
Crop consultant Cecil Parker says he uses his cell phone to receive information from LSU AgCenter Extension specialists and agents as he works in fields in the Louisiana Delta.
“I follow Dr. Natalie Hummel’s blog on Louisiana Rice Pests (http://louisianariceinsects.wordpress.com) because she gives me relevant, thorough notes from grower meetings and workshops,” he says. “The ways today’s Extension agents and specialists communicate definitely aren’t what they used to be — or at least they’ve evolved far beyond face-to-face meetings and printed publications to Web sites, blogs and much more.”
Blogs, FaceBook and other social media are increasingly popular ways for farmers and others to not just access Extension information, but also to interact with Extension personnel, according to Hummel, an LSU AgCenter rice insect specialist.
“The other night I logged onto my FaceBook page, and the chat box popped up with a message from Kenneth LeHaye, a Ville Platte, La., farmer, who is working with me on a rice insect control demonstration plot,” she said. “He had e-mailed me a field map that morning, so we were using the FaceBook chat to line up details on the demonstration we are putting together.”
Yalobusha County, Miss., cotton producer Coley Little Bailey also is in touch with Extension whenever and wherever he needs information.
“I have county Extension director Steve Cummings’ office phone and cell phone numbers on speed dial in my Blackberry,” he said. “I can be planting cotton and have a question about my soil sample results for a particular field, and Steve is available to help, even if he’s on another farm or anywhere else.”
Extension’s 4-H youth program also has adapted to meet changing needs. While livestock shows and other rural-based projects remain extremely popular, today’s 4-H’er might be learning to build remote controlled robots or a personal Web site. Young people in 4-H also have the opportunity to participate in the Congressional Awards program, which emphasizes leadership and community service.
Extension personnel are also using new communication tools to share knowledge among themselves as well as the public. Launched in 2007, eXtension (http://www.extension.org/) is a Web-based interactive learning environment where Extension professionals and experiment station researchers at 74 land grant universities share information that is then made available to consumers.
“These teams of experts from throughout the nation work together to offer the best of the best research-based solutions to today’s problems,” said eXtension director Dan Cotton. “Individuals looking for information can interact with the experts through eXtension’s ‘Ask the Expert’ site or Second Life, a free Internet virtual world where users talk and interact in real time.”
eXtension enables Extension personnel across the nation to see how their counterparts are responding to client needs.
“I can see what kinds of problems other people are addressing, and see how they resolved them,” said Alabama regional Extension agent for fire ants Willie Datcher. “I have confidence that my advice is good when I see through eXtension that others are giving similar answers. Also, if I get a phone call or an e-mail from a client with a question, I can quickly look up the answer on eXtension.”
The original mission of the Extension Service was to provide information and educational programs to farmers and others in rural areas, but the organization has changed to meet the nation’s changing needs. Support for the men and women who produce food and fiber is still a core mission of Extension, but training programs for food service workers, local government officials, pesticide applicators and others are now provided by Extension professionals.
Also part of today’s Extension Service are distance learning programs on healthy eating, child care, personal finance management and a host of other topics.
“Modern technology has opened even more doors for us to serve people who need the information and expertise we have to provide,” said Paul Coreil, LSU AgCenter vice chancellor. “But the difference we make in people’s lives is still the same. We’re giving them the information that can improve their lives and teaching them how to use it to produce the desired results.”
What began as a program to get unbiased, university-based information into the hands of people hungry for knowledge is still serving that mission — only the tools have changed.