|Auguest 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 for them.”
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:
1. Talk to
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.
2. Work with
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.
3. Money –
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.
4. Pass it
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 email@example.com.