Extension & Organic:
The Dialogue Continues
An organic grower questions the value of inviting
Extension to the organic party

In a long email note to us, Michigan grower John Simmons wrote that Extension does what it does very well ... but what it does well may not be good for organic.

By John C. Simmons

Editor’s NOTE

Seems like every time we put out a feeler about Extension and organic, we get a reaction. We recently ran a piece by Elizabeth Lamb, a State Specialist in Extension at the University of Florida, listing four ways organic growers could help Extension be more effective. (See 4 ways organic & sustainable producers can help extension serve them better.)

We got two long responses, one from Cornell Extension, and one from a worried organic grower, John C. Simmons. We decided to share both of them with you, and keep the Extension discussion cooking. In this piece, John Simmons, an organic grower from North Branch, Michigan, talks about his concern that there is a basic incompatibility in the way organic growers and Extension view farming and farming solutions. John’s comments came in the form of a lengthy email to me, so I’ll keep it in that format.

For another perspective on Extension and organic, see the piece by Jim Ochterski of Cornell Extension in New York.

As always, we welcome your comments. Tell us how you feel on this or any topic. keep the dialogue cooking.

Sincerely,
Chris Hill, Executive Editor
NewFarm.Org

Dear Chris,

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 model:

REDUCTIONISM

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 intuition!!!"

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.

But---

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.

Sincerely,
John C. Simmons