Extension & Organic: The Dialogue Begins

4 ways organic & sustainable producers can help extension serve them better
1st in a series of essays from Extension: Florida State Extension vegetable specialist Elizabeth Lamb says Extension people really do want to help organic farmers ... but a little hand up from growers to speed the learning curve sure wouldn’t hurt.

By Elizabeth Lamb, State Specialist in Extension, University of Florida

Editor's NOTE:

About two months ago we ran a short poll asking “Has your local Extension agent been helpful for you as an organic farmer?”

The results? 34% said their agent had been slightly helpful; 15% were moderately helpful; and 18% were very helpful. On the other hand, 26% said their agent had been not at all helpful; a mere 4% said they’d been a downright impediment.

When we published the results of the poll, we got a lot of interested response from state Extension people around the country. One of them was Elizabeth Lamb, from the University of Florida. She wrote: “I am very interested in the results of the poll in this issue as I have statewide Extension responsibility in vegetable crops and am interested in organic production. I realize that there is a perception in some areas, that may be based on fact, that extension is not helpful to organic growers.... [but] communication is a two way street and education may be needed in both directions.”

I wrote back, inviting Elizabeth to send us an informal essay reflecting on where she thought extension had come thus far in relation to serving sustainable and organic farmers, where it needed to go next, what help and resources it needed in order to get to the next level, and what organic farmers could do to help extension agents be more useful in this area.

I sent a similar invitation to four other Extension agents around the country, and we hope to share their responses with you in the next several months. We’ve also made a commitment to develop two professional surveys. One will elicit attitudes toward extension among organic and non-organic farmers. The other will survey extension agents across the country about their own attitudes toward and experience with organic and organic farmers. We hope to have those completed by the beginning of 2004.

The idea here is to foster understanding and communication between extension and organic/sustainable farmers. Someone from Penn State visited us here at The Institute recently and told us that extension people in Pennsylvania get scads of questions about organic production and marketing, and would love to be able to answer them.

There’s clearly lots of opportunity for collaboration, and a desire on the part of many Extension people to provide better service to organic farmers. In future months we’ll be developing tools and information to help extension serve the needs of organic farmers, and we’ll also be seeking out and publishing the most interesting research and information available from as many land grant universities and Extension services as possible. If you have any ideas, or would like to contribute to this dialogue, email me info@newfarm.org.

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 us
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 us
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 on
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!

Elizabeth Lamb 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 emlamb@ifas.ufl.edu.