I am a farmer in North Branch, Michigan producing certified
organic crops on 720 tillable acres, producing hybrid corn,
open pollinated corn, soybeans, oats, barley, sunflowers,
spelt, rye, wheat, buckwheat, clover, and alfalfa.
I have been active in my certifier, OCIA, at a local and
at an International level. I have also been an active cooperator/advisor
with our MSU extension researchers.
This being said, I also have a few reservations about involving
extension in organics.
My first reservation is that extension was basically in charge
of technology and marketing development for the failed conventional
ag industry that I left behind 7 years ago. I am reluctant
to turn over a currently functioning production and marketing
model to their "improvements and modifications".
I have had to ask myself very critically "why do I feel
this way?" and "are my reservations justified?"
The reasoning that is clearest to me is the basic extension
When extension engages a subject it is with
the single-minded focus of the scientific model. That is it's
strength. It is also it's main weakness.
Whether the topic is production or marketing, it has all
been conducted in the absence of that particular activity's
impact on other components of the overall system.
The specialists in production seek to maximize the amount
of whatever it is they are producing---without consideration
of the impact of the increased production on the overall market
and profitability of the farms/producers.
When extension researches inputs it uses the scientific model
of limiting variables. This becomes ineffective when researching
organic/natural systems where the benefits occur through a
complex, often unexpected, matrix of relationships.
It is especially ineffective when attempting side-by-side
comparisons of organic & conventional by using only a
couple of "replacement organic products" to achieve
conventional management goals. This type of research is usually
invalid or useless for producers who are creating whole eco-systems
on their farms, and incorporating some very long-term holistic
management methods. Research revelations to this point have
often consisted of "LOOK!!! You know those things you've
been doing all these years that we've always said were a bunch
of hooey?? THEY WORK!!! We have research to PROVE IT!! Now
you don't have to merely accept these methods on faith and
I believe, however, that faith and intuition, a connection
of the farmer to his/her land, is a very real, and a very
important and effective management method. Perhaps it's not
management. Perhaps it's more of a realization of the importance
of coexistence. Of communicating needs. And of listening,
watching, smelling, feeling, and sensing in ways of which
we are not even aware the needs of ourselves and of our farms.
These are things at which extension does not always excel.
I don't wish to sound like a dark clouded pessimist--but I've
learned from extension for 30 years. I know that hierarchical
systems can be difficult to change. I also know that there
is a new generation of extension personnel at the universities
and in the field, and things are always changing. I have many
friendships with folks there that I value highly.
I have seen a system that works marvelously.
The local certification organization that I started with,
OCIA, had a very active chapter member system.
When I started transitioning to organics I was educated in
production, variety selection, weed control, fertility management,
equipment operation and adjustment, and marketing. And perhaps
most important of all, I became part of a community of growers
who felt a sense of responsibility to each other, and were
actively making connections with consumers, and involving
them in the important process of food production methods.
We lost the profitability of our last ag system when we gave
up control of important segments of it, marketing and research.
Perhaps we should approach this invitation to "Come teach
us what you do so that we can tell you how to do it"
with a bit of cautious skepticism.
Perhaps we should look closely within the community of organics
before issuing a broad invitation to the Institution of Extension.
I realize that these comments could be construed as denigrating
to extension folks. I do not intend them in that way. They
are merely observations that Extension does what it does very
well. I'd just as soon they not do it in organics.
I am very open to conversation on this topic.
John C. Simmons