Spring 1992 // Volume 30 // Number 1 // To The Point // 1TP1

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Seeking a Mature Relationship with Agriculture

In the 1990s, it will be more difficult to defend the delivery of firm-specific management information to large commercial farms as being of primarily public benefit. The public isn't inclined to pay Extension to compete, either with the private sector or with other agencies. Extension must help commercial agriculture recognize and use its own capacity to sponsor the applied research and Extension activities of primary benefit to itself.

Peter D. Bloome
Assistant Director
Illinois Cooperative
Extension Service
Urbana, Illinois

Extension and commercial agriculture have matured together. The discovery and subsequent adoption of new technology by American agriculture, with increases in productivity, constitute a remarkable story of success. Farm population fell from 30% of the U.S. population in 1914 to less than two percent at present, constituting the greatest human migration in our nation's history. This migration was made possible, and necessary, by the huge increase in the productivity of American agriculture. Extension and commercial agriculture are now seeking a relationship more appropriate to the changing social, environmental, and technological context of American agriculture.

A part of that changing context was expressed in 1987 by Keith Bjerke, a North Dakota farmer and currently administrator of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service. In testimony before the Extension Futures Task Force, Bjerke said, "I'm afraid that the time has already arrived when the innovative farmer no longer depends on his County Extension agent for timely information."1

Extension No Longer Needed?

Some farmers go further than Bjerke and suggest they no longer need Extension. Those of us in the organization usually respond by pointing out the many indirect paths by which we channel important information to farmers. Much of the information conveyed by the farm press and farm-supply industries originates from Extension. Extension wholesales information to many retailers. While this is undeniably true, two other responses to the question of agriculture's continuing need for Extension are also appropriate.

One response is to suggest this is an important sign of Extension's success. It was never our intention to make farmers depend on Extension. On the contrary, we have delivered educational programs to farmers with the goal of making them independent of us. To the extent that these farmers, our adult co -learners, are now able to independently seek information, interpret that information to their own situation, and, as a result, make better management decisions, we've been successful. We should now ask them to release us so we can do the same for others.

Yet another appropriate response can be made to farmers who declare they no longer need Extension. Baloney! American agriculture, in all its parts, desperately needs to develop and implement strategic plans to reposition the industry with respect to the global marketplace and the social and environmental context within which it will operate. In this effort, American agriculture needs the applied research and Extension functions of the land-grant system as never before. Society has become much more involved in determining how agriculture will be practiced. Taxpayers and consumers are as interested in the integrity of the environment and the aesthetics of the countryside as they are in assuring the domestic food supply. Farmers who say they have no further need of Extension are stuck in an old paradigm.

Public Policy Education

In delivering educational programs to farmers, Extension has traditionally confined itself to the private accounting system of the market economy. It's now challenged to help farmers understand the more complex public accounting system. Soil fertility offers a good example. How much nitrogen fertilizer to use, in what form, and how and when to apply it, has usually hinged on profitability. If expected marginal returns provided a reasonable rate of return above marginal costs, the investment in additional fertilizer was considered sound. We now recognize two important external factors: the amount of nonrenewable energy required to produce, store, transport, and apply the fertilizer (that is, the full costs of fossil energy aren't being paid) and the risk that some of the nitrogen will find its way into private or public water supplies.

What was previously a straightforward topic of production agriculture has now become a public policy issue. Hildreth of the Farm Foundation points out that such issues require Extension to follow the definition/alternatives/consequences approach in delivering objective educational programs.2 Apologetic and advocacy positions should be avoided. Formulating Extension recommendations is much more complex when they're surrounded by public policy issues.

Private vs Public Benefit

In the early years of this century, it was easy to recognize the benefits of Extension educational programs to farmers, their families, and rural communities as human development in the national interest. In the 1990s, it will be more difficult to defend the delivery of firm-specific management information to large commercial farms as being of primarily public benefit, the costs of which should be borne by the public. In fact, it's the private value of this information that has given rise to growing private sector sources. Consultants from a number of fields, together with the farm-supply industries, general farm and commodity organizations, and the farm press routinely deliver information to farmers that was previously delivered primarily by Extension. In addition, a number of state and federal agencies have now declared their own role in education.

It has been observed that "Extension now has competitors in the information delivery business." Surely this is an oxymoron. Extension must be competitive in acquiring the resources necessary to carry out its unique mission and it must be competitive in hiring and rewarding a competent and innovative staff. However, in its unique educational role, Extension can't be competitive; it can only cooperate.

When some other individual or organization seeks to deliver information to an audience presently served by Extension, the Extension role immediately changes to one of helping the new entity deliver high quality, objective information to the audience. The public isn't inclined to pay Extension to compete, either with the private sector or with other agencies. The cooperative approach won't put Extension out of business. On the contrary, this approach will serve to redefine Extension's future. As Extension cooperates with and supports other information providers, the proper applied research and Extension education role for the land-grant system will become evident and political support for that role will grow.

The crop consulting industry offers an example. Extension has worked for more than 20 years to develop and support this fledgling industry. Suppose now that all farmers decided to employ a crop consulting service and that the supply of consultants is sufficient to meet the demand. Would this spell the end of Extension's programs in crop development and pest management? Just the opposite. Extension would be very busy providing professional development and training to the consultants and their staffs, working with consultants to develop the next generation of products and services to be offered to farmers, and providing education to farmers enabling them to make best use of the products and services of the consultants. Rather than representing a competitive threat, each emerging information provider presents an opportunity for Extension to rediscover and fulfill its unique educational role.

A More Mature Relationship

Agriculture has been described as a mature industry. If Extension is to achieve a relationship with agriculture that's more in keeping with the maturity of the industry, the following must happen:

  1. Extension programs of primarily private benefit, such as those delivering firm-specific management information to commercial farms, must depend less on public funds. Extension must help commercial agriculture recognize and use its own capacity to sponsor the applied research and Extension activities of primary benefit to itself. When significant public benefit spinoffs result from these activities, they should be conducted within the land-grant system of research and Extension.

  2. As Extension becomes involved in sponsored activities, it should avoid competition with the private sector. All activities should support and develop the growing private sector that's part of the broadly defined agricultural industry. Here again, the private sector should sponsor the applied research and Extension activities of primary benefit to itself.

  3. In dealing with issues of broad public concern, Extension will increasingly find itself in a public policy education setting. These issues are best approached through an educational process that defines the issue, identifies alternatives, and discusses the consequences of each alternative. Advocacy positions are inappropriate.

  4. Extension must help agriculture understand its self-interest in environmental and community issues. This understanding must include the necessity of regulation of agriculture.

  5. For Extension to enjoy a dynamic future addressing important issues, it must retain the support of commercial agriculture. It must also maintain its independence to be a credible force for the common good.


1. Keith Bjerke, Extension in Transition: Bridging the Gap Between Vision and Reality (Blacksburg: Virginia Cooperative Extension Service, 1987), p. 15.

2. R. J. Hildreth, speech given at the National Invitational Workshop, Nashville, Tennessee, April 3-5, 1991.