April 2016 // Volume 54 // Number 2 // Commentary // v54-2comm1
Commentaries conform to JOE submission standards and provide an opportunity for Extension professionals to exchange perspectives and ideas.
The Polarization of Agriculture: The Evolving Context of Extension Work
The general public's perceptions and attitudes about agriculture have become more diverse and divergent in recent years. Extension professionals can find themselves working with widely varied audiences whose members adhere to a range of agricultural values. This commentary focuses on how changes in agriculture have affected the work of Extension professionals. I argue that Extension professionals need to find ways to recognize what their own agricultural values are and to determine how those values will influence their work.
Certain topics in agriculture have become increasingly divisive and divergent in the United States. Extension professionals find themselves working with people who are being pulled into two broad and polarized camps: supporters of conventional agriculture and supporters of nonconventional agriculture. Complicating matters, the makeup of each camp is not uniform—unique groups, each having its own concerns, exist within each camp. For instance, the concerns of ranchers are not necessarily the same as those of farmers, and the concerns of organic farmers may not align with the concerns of food justice advocates. Myriad groups having various positions exist at each end of the spectrum represented by these camps, and in the middle are American consumers, who have their own issues related to agriculture, food, and fiber. The discussion of how Extension education must adapt in response to the needs of an ever-changing society is not new (Agunga & Igodan, 2007; Colasanti, Wright, & Reau, 2009; Jimmerson, 1989; Safrit, Conklin, & Jones, 1995; Strong, Rowntree, Thurlow, & Raven, 2015). However, this commentary focuses on how changes in agriculture are affecting the work of Extension educators.
An examination of two groups (unaffiliated with Cooperative Extension) that fund differing agricultural education campaigns sheds light on these differing agricultural values in play. The National Ag Day campaign represents the interests of a variety of conventional agricultural groups (Agricultural Council of America, 2015). The goal of this campaign is to increase agricultural literacy among the general public. The message of the National Ag Day campaign is seemingly neutral toward all forms of agriculture. Yet the partners that support the event include a variety of large-scale agricultural corporations, marketing groups, and lobbying organizations. In contrast to the conventional agricultural groups promoting National Ag Day are members of the unconventional Organic Consumers Association (2015). The Organic Consumers Association is an online grassroots nonprofit group focused on food safety, children's health, and corporate accountability. The association's primary goal is to eliminate industrial agriculture and genetic engineering. Its positions call for bans on genetically modified organisms, the use of waste from concentrated animal feeding operations as "organic" fertilizer, and the use of glyphosate (a carcinogen-containing herbicide) for any purpose. These examples are just the beginning of a long list of topics that span the agricultural divide between the National Ag Day campaign, supported by corporate interests, and the Organic Consumers Association, which represents a return to more natural and safer practices. The two ends of the agricultural spectrum denote not only a divide between conventional industrial farming and nonconventional organic farming but also a divide in agricultural education.
Describing Agricultural Values
The terms conventional agriculture and nonconventional agriculture are widely accepted descriptors of the two concepts at the root of the agricultural debate. These terms represent not only different types of farming but also differing sets of agricultural values.
Conventional agriculturalists argue for the merging of traditional rural and agricultural values with the latest technological developments in agriculture. A frequent argument of conventionalists is that the agriculture industry needs to focus its energy on producing enough food to feed the growing world population (Borlaug, 2000; Conway, 2012; Miller & Conko, 2004; Murphy, 2007). Conventional agriculturalists can range from small-scale family farms to multinational agricultural corporations. Obviously, the needs of these groups can vary greatly, and a variety of interest groups exist to meet these needs. Conventional agriculturalists identify the goal of agricultural education as fostering greater agricultural literacy among the general public. The purposes of increasing agricultural literacy are to advocate for agriculture ideals and to bring agricultural awareness to consumers (Frick, Kahler, & Miller, 1991; Meischen & Trexler, 2003; National Research Council, 1988). Another trend is to view agricultural and extension education as agricultural science education, thereby connecting it to the push for science, technology, engineering, and math education that is popular in school settings (Phipps, Osborne, Dyer, & Ball, 2008). The various conceptualizations of agricultural literacy and agricultural science education seem unbiased. However, the outside agencies that advocate for agricultural education from these perspectives can have a bias toward arguments that support conventional agriculture (Brewster, 2012).
Nonconventional agriculturalists argue that our current industrial agriculture system endangers the health of our planet and is unsustainable in the long run. They generally advocate for food production methods that do the least amount of damage to the environment and are centered on social justice for agricultural workers and consumers worldwide (Berry, 1977; Thompson, 2010; Vallianatos, 2006). The groups that fall into the nonconventional agriculture camp also are diverse and include community-supported agriculture groups and large-scale organic farms. Also, there are differing concerns among nonconventional agriculturist groups. For instance, the goals of local food justice groups do not completely match the goals of grocery chains selling natural and organic items. Nonconventional agriculturalists argue for various goals in agricultural education. Their education work can focus on issues ranging from food justice (Alkon, 2013) and eco-justice (Martusewic, Edmundson, & Lupinacci, 2011) to organic farming practices and healthful lifestyles through gardening (Pollan, 2006). Although no umbrella term, such as agricultural literacy, exists for the educational efforts of nonconventional agriculturalists, they do agree that the current status quo of agriculture (i.e., conventional agriculture) needs to change.
Challenge for Extension Specialists in This Polarized Context
The challenge for Extension professionals lies in managing the passions and tensions created by competing agricultural values. Some groups may prefer an agricultural education message that has a particular bent or may expect educators to have strong passions for particular issues. For instance, rural residents may want agricultural education rooted in conventional agriculture, whereas urban and suburban residents may want agricultural education designed around nonconventional agriculture ideas. Extension professionals must become more sensitive and skilled in working with people who have strong dispositions toward particular agricultural values. Although this prerequisite may seem relatively simple, designing curricula and working with differing camps require Extension professionals to have solid understandings of their own agricultural preferences. These considerations call for Extension professionals to follow some of the same strategies employed in multicultural education (Banks & Banks, 2010).
In general, the trend is for Extension professionals in the United States to view agriculture as a neutral topic (Jimmerson, 1989; Strong et al., 2015). However, if Extension professionals want to work effectively in the area of agriculture, they need to be conscious of and honest about the agricultural views that they possess or that their curricula represent. I am not arguing that Extension professionals become outright advocates for their favored agricultural position; however, presenting their positions in responsible and respectful ways creates an atmosphere of honesty, allowing a variety of agricultural ideas to be debated and to flourish. Average Americans are becoming more aware of the ideological differences in agriculture, even if they have not personally chosen a side, and they may reject information that they feel is reflective of hidden biases.
Considering the political complications in modern-day agriculture, the question that needs answering is this: How do Extension professionals work with people who have polarized agricultural values while respecting those values, not disrespecting the values of any group, and providing unbiased information? This question represents the challenge that faces everyone in agricultural education in the 21st century. We must be able to serve an ever-divided public and respect polarized differences among people, especially when working amid agencies that have more biased agricultural messages.
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