This is a topic close to my heart, and dealing with it has been painful and
joyful over these last ten years.
First, let me say I've been blessed to have one of the most open-minded,
continuously learning, and passionate Ag Extensionists, Garth Veerkamp, in
my county. I consider him a friend and mentor. His wife Randi and he were
beta testers for my book Market Farm Forms.
Here are some experiences and observations I've had.
The way Extension agents are trained and chosen mitigates against
sustainable agriculture, in general, and organic farming, in particular.
Iconoclasts are weeded out in the Masters and PhD process. It's difficult
to do theses and dissertations on topics that run contrary to the paradigms
of the institution you attend and the advisors you seek. Politically, it's
almost impossible. As long as the primary requirement for agents is a
Masters or PhD in a standard agriculture school discipline, it will be
difficult to find agents with strong sust.ag backgrounds.
Because of the top-down nature of Extension, there is considerable pressure
(stated directly in some cases) to only recommend cultural practices and
solutions that have been researched and blessed by the USDA and land grant
colleges. Very little research is done on organic practices. Most of the
inroads have been IPM, and then, only reluctantly in many venues. My
personal experience with this has been through my work with the Master
Gardener program. Because of my obvious (but not militant) organic bias, I
was taken aside after graduation and told I could only give the organic
solution to problems if I was willing to also give the "approved" chemical
I've been lucky to work mostly with other farmers on small acreage using
direct marketing as their primary outlet. These folks don't care that I
don't have a Masters and a title. They care that I've been through what
they're going through. I've also been blessed because Garth has encouraged
my energy for, and participation in many workshops and conferences we've
put together to help folks with small acres realize their dreams of working
The influence of the Farm Bureau on the support and success of any
individual Extension agent and the county office is immense. Our Extension
and Ag Commissioners offices cover two counties. One has a very
conventional and traditional FB that believes anyone with under 15 acres is
a "hobby farmer" and anyone not raising livestock or grain conventionally
simply isn't farming. The other county FB is chaired by an organic
vegetable grower and has a record of supporting diversified farming and
ranching interests. Sustainable ag programs are viewed very differently in
these two counties by the agricultural establishment.
As long as we taxpayers continue to underfund higher education, research
will be carried out in concert with the wishes of grant providers-read that
"life sciences" corporations. Since the mission of Extension is to make
University research available to the public, it can only make available
what is done. Thanks to IPM programs, SARE, OFRF, and California's BIOS
and BIAFS (?) programs, more research is being into sust ag and organics,
but it's still only a drop in the overall budget bucket.
What we value, we spend time on. Each one, teach one. For years, I've
acted as the "Master Small Farmer" for market gardeners in my area through
the Master Gardener program - an arm of Extension. I've found that farmers
in particular value information from folks who are also working the land.
This list and others have enabled me to get information on sustainable
practices to folks interested in using them and to point various Extension
folks in the direction of answers.
I found I was most effective in "meeting people where they are." I've
never told a conventional farmer or Extention Agent they were doing things
wrong. I simply showed them what had worked for me. I guess, over time,
my willingness to spend time and participate has given me a modicum of
Marcie A. Rosenzweig
Full Circle Organic Farm
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