Volume 4, No. 1
"130 Years Later: Farmers Again Fill Own Research Needs"
"Historical Roots of Agricultural Research and Extension"
"Research Agenda Fails to Meet Farmers Needs Today"
"Barriers to Farmer-Based Agenda"
"Farmers Take Action to Fill Research Gap"
"Farmers Need Research Community to Provide More Support"
100 YEARS LATER: FARMERS AGAIN FILL OWN RESEARCH NEEDS
More than a century ago, the U.S. federal government pledged its
support for the agricultural community by signing into law funding
for AmericaUs research RcomplexS -- the U.S. Department of
Agriculture, land grant colleges, experiment stations and extension
services. Although these research institutions have helped lead the
farming community through profound changes in production
technology, they have failed to adapt their research priorities to
accommodate agricultureUs evolving needs.
Farmers again find themselves filling research gaps as they did 130
years ago when they formed RinstitutesS to exchange information
about new production techniques, marketing strategies and business
solutions. Today, production and marketing problems have become
more complex owing to a variety of environmental and social
pressures. Additionally, because of the continuing economic crisis,
which forces hundreds of farmers from their land each week, there
are now fewer neighbors with whom farmers can share information.
As a result, farmers are increasingly calling on research institutions
to adapt their research toward more farmer-based priorities:
increasing farm income, protecting the soil and non-renewable
resources, enhancing the quality and safety of food and promoting
farmer-based economic development.
HISTORICAL ROOTS OF AGRICULTURAL RESEARCH AND EXTENSION
In 1863 Congress determined that the newly created USDA should
undertake as its mission Rto acquire and diffuse among the people of
the United States useful information on subjects connected with
agriculture in the most general and comprehensive sense and to
procure, propagate, and distribute among the people new and
valuable seeds and plants.S Simultaneously, small colleges, called
Rland-grants,S were given public land under the 1862 Morrill Act to
provide educational opportunities for farmers. Thirteen years later,
land-grant colleges established their own on-site experiment stations
to perform field trials and respond to growing criticism in the
countryside that research report could not be applied to meet
farmersU needs. Experiment stations were set up to acquire and
distribute practical farming information and to perform original,
Critical agronomic information, however, continued to reach only a
small percentage of the farming community. As a result, farmers
formed their own "Farmers Institutes" to obtain more information
directly from the experiment stations and land-grant colleges.
By 1914 Farmers Institutes had proven so successful that Congress
agreed to establish the Cooperative Extension Service to Raid in
diffusing among the people of the U.S. useful and practical
information on subjects related to agriculture and home economics,
and to encourage the application of the same.S The Extension Service
communicated information through demonstrations, exhibits, farm
visits, meetings, reports and newspaper articles.
RESEARCH AGENDA FAILS TO MEET FARMERS' NEEDS
Throughout the past century, the research complex has devoted a
large portion of its budget and staff time to one subject: increasing
agricultural production, with emphasis placed on mechanization,
application of chemicals, and the introduction of new seed varieties
and growth hormones.
RThe conventional stronghold has always been there and always will
be," says Brian Loeffler who farms his grandfather's land in
Minnesota. "There has been some push toward sustainable
production, but I think a lot of that force has come from federal
regulation which encourages conservation.S
Loeffler believes that land-grant and extension staff could better
serve farmers by employing different methods of research, such as
multidisciplinary analysis and on-farm experimentation. "These
methods provide more realistic, well-rounded information to farmers
who need to know what the economic and environmental
consequences of a new production technique are and how that
technique will fare on their soil and under their management,"
Other members of the farming community report that land-grant and
extension staff in different parts of the country are beginning to
address alternative agriculture questions.
Tom Larson, who has farmed sustainably in Nebraska since 1974,
agrees that the research agenda and experiment methods "lack
creativity" but he is optimistic about future work with the Extension
Service. "I've seen really good things come from Extension over the
last five years," Larson says. "Extension used to just step aside and
let the implement dealers fill its educational role to farmers. But
more recently Extension is willing to take risks to begin meeting
farmers' true research needs."
"There's been a lot of soul searching among university and extension
staff recently," notes Garth Youngberg, director of the Henry Wallace
Institute for Alternative Agriculture. "There now exists a different
climate of opinion, institutional chemistry and generally more
support for alternative agriculture."
In an effort to identify future research needs, the USDA contracted
with the Riley Memorial Foundation in 1995 to organize a series of
nation-wide forums to attract input from those who rely on research
and extension. Forum participants included farmers, commodity
organizations, farm input firms, and agricultural processing,
environmental, hunger, nutrition group representatives. A majority
of the participants said "support to small and mid-sized farmers"
should become one of the USDA's top research priorities. Participants
also agreed that greater emphasis should be placed on Rsustainable
agriculture, alternative marketing mechanisms to provide cost-
effectiveness, environmental protection ... and food safety, food
distribution and hunger problems.S
BARRIERS TO FARMER-BASED AGENDA
The problems identified with the research and extension systems are
complex and vary from county to county. But the combination of
decreasing public funding and increasing private support for
agricultural research explains, in general, why the research complex
is reluctant to expand the scope of its work.
Federal funding for agricultural research is characterized by periods
of strong fluctuation. Following World War II public funding fell
steadily, but between 1975 and 1990 federal spending on
agricultural research rose, as did spending in other sectors. Since
1990 the research budget has begun another downward trend --
which is expected to continue as a result of Congressional deficit-
reduction goals. Meanwhile, the share of research expenses paid by
private industry has steadily increased since 1975. Last year, private
companies spent $2 billion to supplement land-grant and extension
The increasing reliance of research institutions on private funding
has grown into what many consider the fundamental obstacle in
developing a farmer-based research agenda. Private industry will
not conduct much of the needed, basic research because it is Rnot
related to a specific product or technology that produces income to a
specific private sponsor,S says Robert G. Zimbleman, chair of CoFarm,
a research coalition.
For example, since 1986 four companies -- Monsanto, EliLily, Upjohn
and American Cyanamid -- have contracted millions of dollars to
various land-grant universities willing to research a milk-producing
hormone for cows commonly know as BGH (bovine growth hormone).
The public research complex eagerly pursued the development and
promotion of BGH despite widespread rejection of the product by
farmers and consumers. According to a 1995 nationwide survey for
Dairy Today, 80 percent of the country's dairy farmers had not tried
BGH, while 40 percent of those who had, rejected the hormone
because of "animal health problems and lack of profitability."
Land-grant and extension staff are subject to additional constraints
that limit their ability to pursue answers to farmers' newest on-farm
Extension agents, for example, are discouraged from advising
farmers to follow reduced-input production practices that differ from
chemical and fertilizer dealer label-use recommendations.
Likewise, many land-grant staff are limited because of restrictive
federal grant research guidelines and their own disciplinary
background. Elizabeth Bird, Organization and Development director
for the University of Wisconsin -- MadisonUs Consortium for
Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, explains, ROften, the
only way for a land grant university to shift the direction of its
research is to hire more people or to wait for existing faculty to
retire. These are the only ways to introduce new staff who are
willing to pursue a different vision -- this is a long-process.S
FARMERS TAKE ACTION TO FILL RESEARCH GAP
Responding to growing research gaps, more and more family farmers
and rural organizations are building their own research networks or
strengthening ties with the research community to address
immediate information needs-- much as their counterparts did in the
David Schefer, for example, who practices sustainable forage crop
and livestock production in Missouri, helped organize the Green Hills
Farm Project in 1988. After receiving only conventional, high input
farming advice from his local extension service, Schefer and his wife
created the Green Hills Farm Project Rto build a network among
farmers about environmentally enhancing forage-based production
systems.S The ProjectUs success, in part, led to University support
for the Forage Systems Research Center, which holds regular three-
day seminars about management intensive grazing techniques.
"Every seminar is sold-out despite the fact that farmers have to
leave their fields and pastures for three days and pay to attend the
seminar," Schefer says. "That just goes to show you what type of
research is important to farmers.S
Organizations representing family farmers are also filling research
gaps by developing information networks. The Community Alliance
for Family Farmers, located in California, for example, has developed
a network for hundreds of farmers and members of the research
community to exchange knowledge and experience about sustainable
production techniques, marketing strategies and financial planning.
Groups like the Land Stewardship Project, the Center for Rural
Affairs and the Michigan Agricultural Stewardship Association have
also devised programs to influence their state research agendas and
to assist farmers with on-farm research and demonstration.
Similarly, the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group
(SAWG), a network of farm, environmental and consumer
representatives, has been very successful at building a new
relationship with the research community. Southern SAWG began
calling on the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE)
Administrative Council in 1992 to ensure that SARE program goals
were being met. SARE was initiated in 1985 to support research into
practical and profitable alternatives for farmers and ranchers.
RBefore 1992, the SARE Administrative Council for the region had
been a Tgood old boyUsU club that allowed no meaningful participation
by farmers and non-profit organizations,S says Southern SAWG
member Betty Bailey. After numerous meetings with the Council,
Southern SAWG members won seven seats on the 18-member
council and a family farmer is now the Council chair. Bailey says,
RMore southern farmers now have a say in their future -- By
participating in the SARE process they are able to direct research
toward solving the real troubles they encounter in their fields and in
Southern SAWG recently concluded 50 RState of the SouthS farmer
forums to identify regional research priorities. The results of the
forums, based on input from approximately 500 farmers, are now
being used by SARE land-grant and extension staff to prioritize
RESEARCH SUPPORT NEEDED BY FARMERS
Family farmers have always been resourceful producers and
managers, and they will continue to cooperate with one another to
solve their on-farm needs. But with family farm income hovering at
$5,000 per year and production and marketing problems increasing,
farmers need the renewed support of the research complex. A
continued focus on research that mainly serves private industry in
search of new customers, rather than small, independent farmers
seeking on-farm answers, will further undermine the survival of the
nation's family farmers.
Garth Youngberg says, the agriculture community -- farmers,
researchers, commodity organizations, input developers, rural
citizens and business -- must define the nationUs vision of
agricultureUs future. RWe need collective agreement about what our
countryside should look like and about how it should be structured,S
Youngberg warns, ROtherwise, individual interests will continue to
undermine and divide our landscape.S
House and Senate Agriculture Committees are expected to begin
hearings on the research title of the overdue 1995 Farm Bill
sometime this spring. Hearings in the Senate could begin as early as
February. The next farm bill will determine whether budget cuts put
additional pressure on the future of research institutions --
threatening the development of more farmer-based research. For
information about Congressional research hearings contact the
Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, Margaret Krome, (608) 238-
U.S. Agricultural Research: Strategic Challenges and Options, Robert D.
Weaver, ed. March 1993. Agricultural Research Institute, (301) 530-
Agricultural Research Alternatives, William Lockeretz and Molly D.
Anderson. 1993. University of Nebraska Press.
RLearning From the Grassroots: Input for Federal Food and
Agricultural Research and Extension Programs,S Charles Valentine
Riley Memorial Foundation, 1995. (301) 504-9028.
Taking the University to the People, Wayne D. Rasmussen. 1989.
Iowa State University Press.
Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times. Jim Hightower. 1972. Schenkman
Science for Agriculture. Wallace E. Huffman, Robert E. Evenson.
1993. Iowa State University.
Farm Aid News is produced by the Institute for Agriculture and
Trade Policy for Farm Aid. Editors Harry Smith and Gigi DiGiacomo.
We encourage the reproduction of Farm Aid News & Views.
Comments and suggestions welcome. Farm Aid, (617)354-2922. Fax:
(617) 354-6992. Email: Farmaid1@aol.com.
For more information on agricultural publications contact IATP, (612)
379-5980. Fax: (612) 379-5982. Email: gdigiacomo @iatp.org.