People, programs and partnerships are the three legs of the stool that will sustain the Cooperative Extension Service, says Texas AgriLife Extension Director Dr. Doug Steele.
Steele, in his second year as head of Texas Extension, said as Extension across the country celebrates the agency’s 100th anniversary this year, the agency will take some time to look back on accomplishments of the last century but will focus on the future and the “grand challenges” that face agriculture and the nation.
Steele, keynote speaker at the 52nd Annual Blackland Income Growth Conference in Waco, recalled the vision of Abraham Lincoln in 1862 as he created, during the Civil War, the Land Grant system that made education available across the country “for sons and daughters of the working class.”
“In 1862 the United States was net importer of food,” Steele said. The country was also a net importer of mechanics and education. The Land Grant colleges were instrumental in changing those statistics.
If you are enjoying reading this article, please check out Southwest Farm Press Daily and receive the latest news right to your inbox.
The Extension Service was created in 1914 and began to improve the lives of rural Americans and to increase farm productivity.
“With our 100th anniversary we see some grand challenges ahead,” Steele said. Those include: feeding the world, improving health, protecting the environment, enriching our youth and growing the economy.
“If anyone believes those challenges are not addressed by agriculture, they are not paying attention,” Steele said.
“We have to feed the world. China and Russia will not do it. It will be the United States, as always.”
He said improving health through exercise and nutrition are important aspects of Extension as programs for youth and adults are in place to provide education on healthy lifestyles.
“Protecting the environment is important to agriculture,” he said. “Farmers are the original stewards of the land. If farms are not sustainable, they don’t stay in business.
“And we have no greater investment opportunity than our youth. We are proud of the state’s 55,000 4-H members.” In addition to specific skills, 4-H teaches leadership, he added.
He also noted that agriculture is an essential factor in growing the economy. Agriculture creates jobs.
Steele said technology will play an increasingly important role for Extension as well as for agriculture and the public. He added that social media has become an important tool but one that “should be used to build people up instead of cutting them down.”
Agriculture will lead the way in technology advancement, he said. “Agriculture has always been on the cutting edge of technology. That has always been so even though agriculture has not always gotten credit for acceptance of technology. Agricultural engineers have made significant innovations. We don’t wait for industry but solve our own problems.”
Extension also faces the challenge of working with multi-generation farm families as young people come back to the farm. “Who makes the big decisions?” he asked when a son, father and grandfather are working together.
A technology gap may also affect multi-generations. Steele said some of the older rural residents still like to attend Extension county meetings, partly for the subject matter and partly for the social interaction. “Some want to know what their neighbors are doing. Sometimes they just want to know how they’re getting along,” he said.
The young ones prefer to get information off the internet. He said he’s seen the same with his own family and often relies on text messages to communicate with his children.
Agriculture, he said, must look forward. “Sometimes we get so involved in worrying about what we have to do today that we don’t look to the future.”
The future of Extension, he said, will depend on three factors: People, programs and partnerships.
“We need to consider our personnel,” he said. Agents and specialists continue to play vital roles in Extension’s mission. “But we also need to look at external factors, the producers we work with. How can we affect what they do?
“So we need to look at our programs. Are we providing the right programs? Will we struggle to keep up with technology and how we deal with increased costs and budgets?”
He said partnerships will help Extension maintain and expand its reach. “We can no longer afford to do it alone,” he said. “There are too many people out there who want to support us.”
Steele also applauded the 4-H scholarship winners announced at the annual luncheon and said the leadership they have developed through their 4-H endeavors will be critical as they enter college and then the work force.
He said they had learned what agriculture and the country must do: “Put a stake in the ground and take a stand.”