1, 2003: In my short time in the Cooperative Extension
Service, I have heard repeatedly that Extension does not adequately
serve sustainable and organic growers. The Third Biennial National
Organic Farmers’ Survey indicated that 63% of the respondents
cited uncooperative or uninformed Cooperative Extension personnel
as a barrier to beginning organic production (Waltz, 1999).
However, while Extension as an entity was seen as a hindrance,
there were individual agents from 25 states named as ‘favorite
resources for organic production information’. The New
Farm survey in May 2003 made us look a little bit better, but
still 30% of the 108 respondents said that Cooperative Extension
personnel were not helpful or were even a detriment.
At a Small Farm Roundtable Discussion in Florida about five
years ago, I heard both sides of the story. An organic vegetable
grower insisted that the Extension Service was of no help
and that all the information they used came from product vendors.
A County Agent stood and explained that, while the grower
was correct, what she needed was an introduction to organic
production to help her get started. Her argument was, in effect,
“Someday when you are not looking for an answer, invite
me out to your farm and show me what you are doing. When I
know what kinds of information you need, I can start looking
Having just worked my way through the National Organic Standards
and a certification form, I think we all - producers, researchers
and Extension personnel - need help. Some of the help will
come from State Land Grant Universities doing research in
applied organic production methodologies that apply to local
growers. The dramatic increase in organic and sustainable
production in the US has already initiated a corresponding
increase in research on organic and sustainable production
in the Land Grant Universities. While Florida is not yet a
major state for organic production, the University of Florida’s
Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences has created a
Center for Organic Agriculture to encourage research relevant
to organic growers, and other states have similar initiatives.
Federal and state grants, such as the Sustainable Agriculture
Research and Education (SARE) program, are also a major encouragement
to getting relevant research done. Research results will filter
through Extension, creating a more knowledgeable and ‘cooperative’
population of Extension specialists and agents. This is, admittedly,
not necessarily a quick fix.
So this is where organic and sustainable producers come in.
There are several ways you can help create a helpful and knowledgeable
Cooperative Extension Service:
The traditional flow of information in a Land Grant/Extension
system is a loop from research personnel to Extension personnel
to growers and back again. Due to reduced personnel and tight
budgets, the return path can seem to be impassable. In the
67 counties of Florida, there are approximately 10 Commercial
Vegetable Agents. While agents with other backgrounds and
duties are willing to help growers, it is difficult to have
a broad background of information in all areas of agriculture.
Extension has developed excellent electronic methods to get
information out to the producers - such as Florida’s
Electronic Data Information Source (EDIS) - but we are not
as successful in getting information from the producers back
into the system.
In order for Extension personnel to more effectively serve
the organic community, they must understand the philosophy,
practices and needs of the organic growers. The best place
for this information to originate is the growers themselves.
So, invite us to your farms, and come into our offices to
tell us your problems. Ask to be included on Extension Advisory
Committees. Make sure you are on our mailing lists so you
know what programs are being offered and make suggestions
for topics you’d like to see covered. Patience is a
virtue we can’t always afford agriculturally and neither
growers nor Extension personnel have enough time to get everything
done. However, creating a channel for communication will be
time well spent for everyone involved.
Both research and Extension people need on-farm trials to
support the results of theoretical research. Hands-on learning
works for most of us and having to figure out production systems
and inputs for a research trial is a great educator. Working
side by side with your Extension agent will also get you an
'unencumbered ear’. Holding Field Days on your farm
to demonstrate the results of the research helps get the word
out to other agents and producers.
– even a little bit - talks. So does organization.
I always hold up the Minnesota Wine Grape Growers as “The
Mouse That Roared”, agriculturally speaking. There were
relatively few wine grape growers when I was in Minnesota
but they were an entrepreneurial lot. They funded a graduate
student at the University of Minnesota so they not only got
recognition by the University, they could also influence the
research being done to their benefit.
A single small organic grower cannot afford to support a
research program, but perhaps a group could. If a graduate
stipend is too much, organize a grant competition for local
researchers or Extension agents funded by percent of sales
from member growers. Even if funding is impossible, organize
a local or statewide group of growers to make the message
heard. And invite agents and specialists to the meetings so
they learn what is important to the group.
If you don’t think you are getting the attention of
your Extension personnel, talk to the County Directors or
other administrators with specific requests. There may be
financial constraints that limit what they can do for you
but in most cases you will get results. If you think your
Extension Agent is doing a terrific job, pass that along,
too – to other growers, Extension administration, County
officials, etc. I have truly never met an Extension agent
or specialist who wasn’t interested in providing information
to the benefit of their clients, and it is amazing what a
little positive feedback will get you!
is a State Specialist in Extension at the University of Florida’s
Indian River Research and Education Center. “I focus
on greenhouse vegetable production,” says Elizabeth,
“although a lot of what I do relates to small farms.
In the area I am in (east coast of Florida – south or
central depending on who you ask), we are seeing a lot of
people interested in small farm production of vegetables,
although the tradition here is for large vegetable and citrus
operations. Some are looking at organic production as an higher
value alternative to citrus production. I also teach at a
satellite campus of the University of Florida at the Indian
River Research and Education Center – Horticulture,
Vegetable Production, and this summer for the first time,
Organic and Sustainable Production.” If you’d
like to ask Elizabeth a question, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.