The Professor, The Farmer and the Extension Agent: Why the Partnership Works
Second in the two-part Series. First article here.
By Julie Murphree, Arizona Farm Bureau
The way modern-apostles of the food movement tell it, you and I might conclude today’s agriculture is evil and lacking in rational science and research-based practices. That’s simply not the case. And, the relationships between professors, farmers and extension agents prove it.
The Professor and Farmer
University of Arizona’s Andrade-Sánchez says, “Our role as applied researchers is to test the limits of new commercially-available technology in solving real problems of farmers as they attempt to grow plentiful, affordable and wholesome food. But that’s not the end, we need constant interaction with growers to determine if off-the-shelf options do not satisfy their needs; in such cases we have to do our own research and development of technology. No matter what, we’ve got to listen to their needs and combine the resources to get the job done.”
He and others explain that our modern farmers continue to produce more food crops on less land and are looking to science to help them continue to increase yields per acre but also reduce costs. For example, American farmers’ corn yields in the late 1930s averaged from 25 to 40 bushels per harvested acre. Today, American farmers produce corn yields well over 150 bushels per acre.
Arizona cotton, grains and alfalfa farmer Karl Button, grower partner with Andrade-Sánchez’s team, explains the importance of the research/farmer partnership. “Working with growers helps researchers focus and direct their attention to real-world or real-field situations. They can understand the farmer’s challenges by partnering with them. It’s a two way deal. We benefit and they benefit.”
When asked about what part of the relationship with the farmer in research helps the most, Andrade-Sánchez has a quick answer. “The willingness to let us use some of their fields and understand their production systems and management practices is a huge help. That way we can try different things to make incremental improvements on technology. A grower’s openness to let us work on possible solutions right in their own environment has tremendous value. I am aware of the fact they are in business to be successful and I want to be sensitive to this truth.”
The Agent and Farmer
This feeling of mutual benefit and partnership extends to the cooperative extension arena. Says specialty-crop grower John Boelts with Boelts Farms in Yuma, “Our Yuma extension team has saved us a tremendous amount of money in production costs. Additionally, they respond quickly and if something new emerges, like a new pest problem, they take the bull by the horns and spread the word providing information we can use to combat the problem.”
In the early days of extension work, agents often connected with the most influential producer in a given community and introduced that producer to the new technology or improved management techniques knowing that if the technology worked word would quickly spread. Today, it’s a combination of interactions including agents that have served a given area for several years and are as well-known and connected as the area farmers.
“That’s the kind of approach we’ve been using here [in Yuma] for 100 years,” says Kurt Nolte, area agriculture agent for Yuma County.
Agents and producers also point out that more and more technology and management practice improvements are grassroots. In other words, the improvement is driven by the producer and pushed back up the research and development chain to the university.
No better example can be found than the one in Yuma relating to food safety. Current turn-around time for lab tests on water quality and other areas is 24 to 48 hours. During the peak of planting and harvest and in an intense market, this time frame is just not fast enough. “Producers want food safety information within minutes,” says Nolte.
So, Yuma producers came to Nolte and his team requesting better turn-around times on their lab tests. “We’re working hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder with local producers to develop a device using molecular biology technology to get test results in minutes,” says Nolte. “Producers want their water quality sample today!”
While the hand-held device is in pilot, the Yuma Cooperative Service team believes it will be a regularly used technology in the future. “It’s a win-win for everyone,” says Nolte. “The agents learn about the producers’ challenges. Producers obtain the research and development perspective and we all advance the research and technology for food safety which is so critical right now.”
For The Future …
Says Andrade-Sánchez, “The more that scientists work with growers the better we will be at the end. The constant interaction of growers gives us the ability to understand what is relevant. The best way is to work with them on their farms. Their world is the world I want to impact.”
And while farmer Button has committed to partnering with U. of A. researchers for the last 15 years, he says one of the strongest benefits in working with them is the accumulated knowledge gleaned from the partnership. “Advances in machinery, herbicides, monitoring techniques, crop management techniques and biotechnology all contribute to the industry’s ongoing successes in modern production agriculture.”
Button further explained that cooperative research that includes the farmer assures useful projects that benefit real-world agriculture production.
Ultimately, without the three-way relationship of the professor, farmer and agent, today’s agriculture would not be able to accommodate a growing population while at the same time providing healthy and economical food. It’s certainly food for thought.
And as for those three guys that stepped into the agriculture test plot? They’ve just come up with a better management technique to improve yields. The future looks bright for agriculture because they’re working together.
Special Editor’s Note: Cooperative Extension Services serves the small urban farmer along with the community at large. Wherever you live, you can look up your county’s extension service that provides Master Gardener programs, 4-H and so much more.