Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Going, Going, Gone?

steve brown, my turn

They gave Clifford Lee a new Chevy Silverado. They gave Gene Seigler a huge banquet. The “they” were the respective communities in which these men worked for many years. The gifts were expressions of appreciation and honor from farmers and other ag interests for immeasurable contributions to crop production. Clifford was a county agent; Gene an ag engineer.

Both were products of land-grant institutions. Both fulfilled and furthered the visionary concepts embedded in the land-grant charge, that “three-legged stool” of teaching, research and Extension initiated in the 1860s and integral to U.S. agriculture for generations. Professionals like these shaped my career mindset: The effective Extension scientist must 1) have pertinent knowledge, 2) a desire to help others and 3) be accessible … and it helps to get along with folks. 

Ultimately, the land-grant mission — in all its facets — is science-based information “for the people.”

In the past 40-plus years, I’ve worked at three land-grant institutions and have interacted with peers across the Cotton Belt. My sense — and I hear similar concerns from others — is that in many places the mission of serving production agriculture in the field and classroom has “taken a back seat” or worse.

Addressing real-world production issues and actively, effectively interacting with farmers and those who affect row crop agriculture seems old fashioned and less important.

The big quest is research grants and formal publications. Perhaps some consider these endeavors “for the people,” but oftentimes such have little connection with turn-row solutions. 

Basic research is indeed essential to the advancement of agricultural science, but if we neglect or minimize current challenges, information delivery and problem solving, we will lose our audience figuratively and literally.

For 11 years I worked with the global ag company that is now Corteva. One boss repeatedly stated, “If you lose a customer, it is hard and expensive to win him back.” I have come to believe this is also true for academia. If we in the public sector lose contact or trust with farmers and other in-field decision makers, they soon become accustomed to not hearing from us, to not using us … to not needing us.

Remember the old Maytag washing machine commercials? Because Maytag products were so reliable, the repairman sat in his shop alone and frustrated. His machines never broke down; consequently, no one ever needed or called him. 

The worst thing for an Extension professional is to be irrelevant. Not needed. Never called.

Across the Cotton Belt, there are numerous bright spots of great science and grower engagement, but many of these outstanding public sector professionals see the handwriting on the wall and believe those who follow in their steps will be compelled to pursuits that diminish their connection with producers. May it not be!

The following are comments I’ve heard attributed to ag institutional leaders.

• Our organization exists solely to serve the growers of our state.

• You need to spend your first two years getting your Extension program off the ground, not focusing on research projects, grants, etc.

• We have long focused on production agriculture. Now we need to broaden that focus.

• In six years, there won’t be anyone willing to screen a new product in a research trial.

Obviously, I hope for the perspectives reflected by the first two comments. 

Bureaucracies, whether public or corporate, typically turn rather slowly. What is the tenor, the direction of your ag school? Is that institution clearly, undeniably, unashamedly committed to cotton and those who grow, manage, support and process it? Let them hear from you, positively or negatively.

Yes, some remain committed to serving farmers. However, if change is needed, it can only begin with a poke, a prod and a first step.

— Steve M. Brown
Auburn University

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