View from the Summit
Perspectives On Line: The Magazine of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

NC State University

Fall 2002 Contents Page Features Excellent Preparation Toward a Lifetime of Leadership
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Robert Evans (left) of the College's Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department, Wayne Batten, Pender County, and Mitch Woodward, Wake County, talk while visiting exhibits during the Futures Summit in Rocky Mount.  (Photo by Dee Shore)

View from the Summit: The challenges of change are faced at a statewide gathering of Extension professionals. --- By Dee Shore
(Photo courtesy N.C. Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development)


ornate letter Some 275 extension agents and specialists gathered in Rocky Mount June 25-27 for the Futures Summit: A Summit on the Future of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Community and Rural Development (ANR/CRD) Extension Programs in North Carolina.

Though the name was a mouthful, the meeting’s intent could be summarized in one word: change.

Meeting organizers and college administrators said they expect the summit to help Extension respond effectively to the accelerated pace of change reshaping North Carolina’s agricultural sector, its communities and its natural resource base.

“As changes on farms, in natural resources and in our communities are evolving, so are the roles and contributions of Extension services and educators,” said Dr. Jon F. Ort, director of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service.

“If we are to be effective in our mission of helping ensure economic prosperity, environmental stewardship and an improved quality of life for North Carolina, we will have to recognize and appropriately adapt our programs to emerging trends and needs.”

The trends outlined by summit speakers and participants were wide-ranging — from new technologies such as genetic engineering, precision farming and information management to a changing farm structure marked by increasing vertical integration of agricultural industries, a widening gap between small and large farms, razor-thin profit margins for traditional commodities and increased international competition.

Speakers also cited changing farm and environmental policies; greater societal demands for food safety and quality and environmental protection; a growing, better-educated, multilingual and increasingly urban population; and a bleak outlook for government budgets.

Identifying and meeting
the challenges

The state’s increasingly tight budget presents significant challenges to Extension’s strong tradition of helping North Carolina’s people deal with changes through applied research and extension education, said College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Dean James L. Oblinger.

“We need to get serious about prioritization,” Oblinger said as he challenged summit participants to develop a report to help guide college and Extension administrators in planning for the future of ANR/CRD programs.

In small groups, participants began a process that was expected to yield a draft report. In discussing key challenges facing Extension’s customers in the next five to 10 years, 79 percent of the groups cited environmental issues in agriculture; 64 percent, business management; 57 percent, the rural-urban interface; and 46 percent, government policies and regulations.

Biotechnology, disaster preparedness and recovery, food safety and population growth were also mentioned.

The groups also discussed future program opportunities to help meet clients’ needs. Topping the groups’ lists were programs related to leadership development for policy makers, alternative enterprise development, marketing and business management, land use conservation and preservation, agricultural awareness among the general population, outreach to urban and minority groups and consumer horticulture.

In identifying new audiences that should be a priority for Extension, groups mentioned public officials; urban farmers; newcomers to the state, including Spanish-speaking immigrants; part-time producers with little or no experience; and producers growing specialty items such as herbs, goats and organic produce for niche markets.

The groups also attempted to prioritize strategies for Extension’s future. They said that Extension needs to explore new organizational structures, diversify its program delivery and improve its information technology systems.

The groups said that Extension professionals need to reach out to new audiences, take risks, identify new funding sources, develop alternative program delivery strategies and make the most of volunteers.

Dr. Karen DeBord, a family and consumer science specialist who helped summarize the discussions, said that the groups also expressed a need for Extension to hire more media specialists, multi-county agents, fund developers and bilingual educators.

Informed discussion
In reaching their conclusions, group members had more than their own knowledge and experience to draw upon. Throughout the summit, they heard from several extension professionals from across the country who discussed forces reshaping extension and strategies for dealing with change.

And, through a stakeholders panel, summit participants gained different perspectives on the challenges faced by new and traditional agricultural enterprises and environmental groups in North Carolina.

Alluding to an observation from Will Rogers, Joe Stoffregen, of Homewood Nursery in Raleigh, said that while Extension is on the right track, “you will get run over if you just sit there.” He suggested that Extension consider new ways, like computer kiosks, e-mail newsletters and plant clinics in retail centers, to disseminate gardening information and to promote the Master Gardener volunteer program.

Steve Whitfield of the North Carolina Forest Landowners Association, Gerry Cohn of the American Farmland Trust, and David McNaught of North Carolina’s Environmental Defense office recommended that Extension expand its partnerships with other organizations to address such issues as forest stewardship, environmental protection and farmland preservation.

Both Rick Holder of Harvey Fertilizer and Gas Co. in Kinston and Miriam Lewis, a swine producer and former Extension agent in Pitt County, emphasized the need for educating non-farmers about agriculture. Holder focused on ways that Extension could enlighten people moving to rural areas about the nature of farming, while Lewis noted the need for young people to gain an appreciation for agriculture.

Large-scale farmer Donald Heath of Craven County, said that producers need training in new technologies such as the global positioning system and genetic engineering. “I think the farmers are waking up and realizing they need an education,” he said.

Another producer, Alex Hitt of Peregrine Farms in Alamance County, said that he thought small-scale farmers needed Extension more than others, especially in the area of marketing and business management.

“We’ve done some disservice to farmers by telling them what to do rather than helping them learn to make decisions,” he said.

Meanwhile, Carolyn Prince, former director of the N.C. Coalition for Farm and Rural Families in Fayetteville, advised Extension agents to consider the distinct learning styles and meeting styles of underserved stakeholders who may not have transportation to meetings and who may not be comfortable with fast-paced computer presentations.

A rare opportunity
The wide-ranging insights from diverse stakeholders made the summit a “first-time-ever kind of meeting,” said Dr. Roger Crickenberger, the Extension Service’s ANR/CRD program leader. “In my 25 years in Extension, we have not had this mix of people together,” he said.

The idea for the summit came out of discussions by agents and specialists working on several of Cooperative Extension’s major programs. Dr. Doug Sanders, horticultural science specialist, spearheaded the effort.

The event was funded by private donations from about 60 agribusinesses, commodity groups, foundations and other private organizations.

As the summit wrapped up, veteran Craven County Extension Director Billy Dunham concluded that the need for change was clear.

“What we say we do well” — farm demonstrations, classes, one-on-one consultations, volunteer development and youth education — “doesn’t always match with the problems we see ahead,” Dunham point out. “We are going to have to be retooled.

“We have learned that we have to look at planned change,” he said. “And out of this conference, I think we can come forward with a great expectation of planned change.”


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