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:
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.
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
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