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The changing face of agricultural extension

Ray Smith Published on 01 May 2014
Henry Yeomans

Major changes are occurring in agricultural extension in the U.S. and other countries. During the last six months, I reviewed forage and livestock extension programs around the world.

I was hoping to find innovative methods to deliver extension advice on-farm. I saw a lot of ways extension is being done, but I was reminded that there is no substitute for person-to-person communication.

I learned that hands-on demonstration in farmers’ fields is still one of the most effective ways to guarantee understanding and application of new agricultural practices, products or techniques.

And most importantly, that extension specialists, county agents, company reps and private consultants must really care about the well-being of farmers and not treat their career as just a job to earn a living.

Although my primary goal was to look for effective forage and livestock extension programs, as I traveled I realized there is a major transition occurring in many U.S. states and a number of countries to privatize agricultural extension. This transition really concerns me but also shows opportunities that are developing.

Dr. Neels Botha from AgResearch in New Zealand said, “If you still have a working land-grant university system for extension delivery, then keep it as long as you can. It’s the best system there is.”

What Dr. Botha meant was the U.S. system that combines extension, research and teaching at publicly funded universities.

New Zealand virtually eliminated publicly funded extension more than 20 years ago. In the dairy industry, with their cooperative approach and significant checkoff dollars, extension delivery has flourished, but in the beef cattle and sheep industry, it has become difficult for farmers to obtain timely information.

In New South Wales, Australia, the new government almost completely eliminated publicly funded extension at the beginning of 2013. Commodity crops like cotton have a track record of effective private consulting, but in the forage and livestock industry, farmers are already struggling with how to receive timely and impartial advice.

Farmer study groups can provide an alternative or useful supplement, to public extension. Last summer, while visiting Oregon, I participated in meetings with two of Dr. Woody Lane’s forage study groups.

I was impressed with these private extension groups and how effectively they are getting information out to participating farmers and ranchers. Woody currently facilitates three of these groups, with the first one initiated in 1995.

Each group collects membership fees semiannually, maintains a bank account and hires a facilitator to coordinate meetings. Groups contain 10 to 20 operations.

Meetings are held either monthly for three hours, or bimonthly for five hours at sites rotating among member ranches. Each meeting includes a pasture walk, an in-depth discussion about a focus topic and announcements.

Forage study groups serve many roles. They give members ongoing information about forages, grazing and nutrition. They also provide support for new ideas, facilitate cooperative arrangements for purchases and marketing, and serve as important venues for coordinated on-farm research, trials of new techniques, special workshops, tours and guest speakers.

As fee-based organizations, these study groups are also protected from fluctuations in public funding.

In New Zealand, private farmer discussion groups have been an established feature of forage agriculture for more than 30 years. New Zealanders have found that private farmer groups are one of the most effective methods of transferring information and improving production.

The group meetings in New Zealand are very similar to Woody’s groups in Oregon. Interestingly, Woody was not aware of the New Zealand model when he started the forage study groups in Oregon, but the groups started for the same reasons: farmers meeting together, learning from each other and improving the overall productivity and sustainability of their operation.

Hiring an independent private agricultural consultant provides another alternative to publicly funded extension (as long as you can find a really good one).

There are many excellent private agricultural consultants working in the U.S. The majority of these work with the major crops or livestock nutrition, with significantly less working with forage crops.

In Australia, I organized a tour for a group of Kentucky farmers and county agents, and we met Ross Watson, who has been a private forage crop consultant for 19 years. Before that, he was the equivalent of a county agent.

Ross Watson

Ross provides his clients with advice on a range of areas including pasture establishment, forage species and variety selection, and management recommendations for beef, dairy and horse farms.

He travels to each farm about once per month and gives them specific advice on changes they should make for increased production and profitability. He definitely falls in the category of “a really good” private consultant.

Working with your local agricultural supplier is an easy way to obtain service and product recommendations or advice, but there is a concern that their main goal may be simply selling a product.

The most unexpected outcome from my sabbatical came from a meeting with Dr. Doug Edmeades of AgKnowledge in New Zealand.

Through our conversation and subsequent follow-up, he showed me a major issue surrounding privatization of agricultural research and extension.

The issue can be summed up by the following question: “If all agronomic research and extension is conducted by private industry (or controlled by private industry through funding or political influence), then who will protect the interests of the farmer?”

When Dr. Edmeades was a public soil scientist, he was involved in a court case in which the Ministry of Agricultural and Fisheries (MAF) was being sued for defamation by a fertilizer company.

The company claimed defamation because MAF soil scientists said publicly that their product did not work based on extensive testing, but the company claimed the product did work.

The case seemed simple and MAF won, but the end result was that the company continued to sell the product and claimed that they were victims of government discrimination.

In the era of “commercial interests know best” and political pressure, the government backed down and put a “gag order” on the scientists. This incident and several others related to me in New Zealand and Australia have led me to seriously consider the pitfalls of completely privatizing agricultural extension.

Once publicly funded extension is gone, it will be difficult to revive. There will be extension, but it will tend toward the very well-organized commodities or the larger farms.

Farm truck loaded

In Australia, the New South Wales Department of Primary Industry (DPI) went from having 60 regional extension agents/specialists in forage and livestock areas at the beginning of 2013 to zero. NSW-DPI is now solely a research organization, and universities in Australia do not contribute to extension; their function is teaching and research.

Some publicly funded extension activity is continuing under a new organization formed by combining the equivalent of our NRCS, APHIS and state Department of Agriculture.

This combined organization will hire 11 extension specialists for the state, but their scope will be very broad (environment, animal health, production, etc.) with no expert in specific commodities or livestock species.

The end result is that the majority of the former commodity specialists and livestock specialists either took an early retirement, moved into other fields or started private consultancy businesses.

Many years of agricultural extension experience were lost forever due to a political decision. One thing I’ll say in defense of the politicians, some of the regional agents/specialists had allowed a certain apathy or entitlement mentality to set in.

Their jobs seemed assured, so they weren’t staying on the cutting edge of research and weren’t aggressive in meeting client needs. This group was in the minority, but their attitude probably led to a number of complaints.

In conclusion, when I was researching the changing face of extension, I expected to discover unique and novel extension delivery techniques that I could put into practice in Kentucky, but what I learned was much broader in scope.

I recognized the need for all of us to advocate for the extension programs we have in place because I saw firsthand the impact on farmers in countries that have lost publicly funded extension.  FG

PHOTO 1: Henry Yeomans shares with county agents and producers during a tour of the McClenaghan merino sheep operation in NSW, Australia.  

PHOTO 2: Ross Watson, expert forage crop consultant, shares with county agents and producers how he developed the pasture system on Rob Cooper’s irrigated grass-based dairy in NSW Australia.

PHOTO 3: Australian farm truck loaded with Kentucky county agents and producers. Notice the snorkel at roof level (the air intake for crossing a flooded roadway – not a recommended practice, but it’s nice for the engine to not drown out when you’re in the middle). Photos courtesy of Ray Smith.

Ray Smith

Ray Smith
Forage Extension Specialist
University of Kentucky