Grower 101: What Is Extension?
Ironically, I had no idea what a county agent was until I actually became one. And it turns out, as evidenced by continuous federal and state budget cuts, the majority of the population is wondering what extension agents are and what they can do for growers.
In order to address this issue, it is important to deviate slightly and look at why cooperative extension was started. Extension is an outreach arm of a state university; it's funded by federal, state and county dollars. The United States implemented policies that allowed our country to invest in education provided in majority by the Cooperative Extension Service and the land grant institution (state universities). Indeed, many would argue that quality of life in terms of food production and distribution improved significantly (growing 2 percent annually) in the latter part of the 20th century due to extension agents and specialists bringing research and information from the university to the grower at the local county level.As a supplier of a public good (education and information) in an information age, extension agents like myself face a lot of competition; we struggle to reinvent ourselves, find competitive advantage and boost falling public support. Some extension agents are addressing this by focusing on the competitive advantages they offer. In addition to helping the agents, this focus can help others and answer the question, "How can you, the grower, benefit?"
Extension agents help identify which information sources are credible and which are not. They also can help interpret confusing claims made by manufacturers. For example, I have been asked by greenhouse growers, "What's the difference between a media containing biofungicide and one containing mycorrhiza? Which one would work better in my situation?" Given my background, I can answer a question like this one relatively easily. If I am asked something I am not as familiar with, I have a network I can go to for the appropriate, research-based information.
We also can provide training not supplied by the private sector. For example, in Colorado, commercial and private pesticide-applicator-license continuing-education units and exam-preparation classes are provided by very few in the private sector. Extension educators have been able to establish themselves in this niche. Many of us are very good at teaching and public speaking. More than likely, we have the expertise to fulfill any training needs.
Providing quality plant and pest laboratories, onsite diagnostics and crop production consultation is another competitive advantage. One of the historical duties of an extension agent was to make farm or home visits. This type of service and the one-on-one contact that results is under attack as being inefficient, but I believe it is still a vital role for extension educators, depending on the audience that benefits. For example, when I go to a commercial greenhouse and walk the range with the grower, we may discuss several production issues and potential improvements that could impact the business's bottom line. If the grower follows my management scenarios and diagnoses, the potential for economic benefit for the individual grower and the community exists. This grower, as part of a collective voice of growers associations, lobbying groups, the business community, etc., can get the political ear much more efficiently than if I were to offer the same service to a hobby greenhouse owner. The result of my potential visit to a hobby greenhouse owner might not produce the same benefit because the hobbyist is less likely to be part of a collective voice regarding this issue. Certainly educational information should be made available to noncommercial entities; I am arguing a certain distribution method is most efficient or beneficial for a particular audience.
Research is another of our strengths and competitive advantages. We strive for unbiased research. Unfortunately, some research cannot be done without the cooperation and funding of industry groups. Budgets are not only tight for state and other government-associated programs; they are just as tight or tighter for those in the industry. Therefore, there are many important questions that might not be addressed due to lack of money. We are fortunate the green industry collaborates with extension, and as a result, many projects benefiting large-audience groups are under way.
What may be a little-known fact is that extension agents are an integral part of conducting research programs. Whether they collaborate with a specialist on the university campus or conduct the research on their own, the majority of extension educators have research experience, and it is an integral part of the job description.
We as extension educators need to focus on our strengths such as teaching and interpreting complex scientific information, which can be utilized by those whose marketing and business strengths are better than ours.
In A Nutshell
Extension educators (many of us don't like the term agent) can provide a multitude of educational products, programs and research that can clearly benefit those in the green industry. Our challenge lies in shaking off some of our legacy, streamlining ourselves and, most importantly, convincing taxpayers that we offer beneficial products that few others do. Clearly, we may need the help of the industry to do this. You can do as much for us as we can do for you.