PERSPECTIVES Summer 2000: The Future of Cooperative Extension
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The Future of Cooperative Extension
Photo by Herman Lankford

reporter from an eastern North Carolina newspaper recently called the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service with a question: Why, she asked, was Cooperative Extension providing urban people with training in financial management? Wasn’t Extension a farming thing?

Well, yes and no. Agriculture and agribusiness — food, fiber and forestry — remain North Carolina’s top industry, and Cooperative Extension remains the resource for providing farmers with the latest research-based information to help them manage their crops.

But Cooperative Extension has been, and perhaps always will be, much more. For nearly nine decades, Cooperative Extension has followed a singular mission — the wording changed only slightly over the years — to help people put knowledge to work.

It has focused, and will continue to focus, on agriculture and forestry, the environment, community and rural development, family and consumer education, and 4-H youth development.

But as the needs in these areas change, so does Cooperative Extension. When families need, for example, educational programming in financial management, Extension responds. And it responds in new ways.

Indeed, new models are shaping the way the nationwide Cooperative Extension system ensures that land-grant universities respond effectively to the people it serves.

One model has emerged as particularly important to the future of North Carolina State University: It is the model of engagement set forth by the Kellogg Commission on the Future of State and Land-Grant Universities in its 1999 report “The Engaged Institution.”

The commission defines engagement as “a commitment to sharing and reciprocity. By engagement the Commission envisions partnerships, two-way streets defined by mutual respect among the partners for what each brings to the table.”

An engaged institution, the commission holds, is responsive, accessible to outsiders and academically neutral when it comes to contentious issues. It integrates its service mission with its responsibilities for developing intellectual capital and trained intelligence, and its service function is well coordinated with its academic and research units. For an institution to be engaged, it also must have strong relationships with local partners in government, business and the non-profit world.

N.C. State University Chancellor Marye Anne Fox has said, “The idea of engagement differs from extension in that extension seems to be uni-directional. When we have some resources, we extend to those who are waiting to receive; whereas, the concept of engagement implies reciprocity to allow for the partners with whom we interact to both give back and to provide intellectual input on how a university is running.”

A 4-H youth development project that is emerging in Warren County perhaps exemplifies what the Kellogg Commission means by engagement.

The county, along the Virginia border, is among North Carolina’s poorest. Census statistics show that 24 percent of the county’s people — and 35 percent of its children — live in poverty. Concerned with such statistics, the board of directors of a local 4-H camp joined with the county Cooperative Extension staff, university faculty and government officials to develop a strategy that might enhance the lives of the county’s families and youths. They came up with the idea to turn the county-owned Buck Spring 4-H Camp into what they call a Leadership Excellence Center.

“The center concept recognizes that leadership development and community capacity building are the keys to rural development,” said Dr. Mike Davis, state 4-H leader and assistant director of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service.

Davis and other faculty members helped guide local groups through the needs assessment that led to the plan for turning the camp into a leadership center. The county is collaborating with university departments to help the community acquire public and private support and develop effective programs.

Photo by Herman Lankford

Members of the community see the new center as a place where public officials, professionals and citizens can undergo leadership training; where members of the growing senior citizen population can find educational programs that meet their needs; and where leaders from various agencies can come together to address common problems, such as poverty and a lack of youth recreation and employment opportunities.

“The concept is actively engaging multiple university disciplines and agencies to bring resources to bear on high-priority local issues,” Davis said. “Federal agencies and private partners are joining the effort as collaborations around common issues are emerging. This, to me, is the future of the Cooperative Extension Service.”

Photo by Herman Lankford

Fox would like to see such engagement among communities, the university and other partners shape the future not just of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Cooperative Extension Service but of extension efforts throughout the university. To that end she has proposed that all university extension activities be brought under one umbrella headed by a vice chancellor for extension and engagement. The proposed position was among the topics taken up in June 2000 by the Commission on the Future of N.C. State — a panel of experts and visionaries designated to explore the university’s future.

Dr. Jon F. Ort, director of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, said the proposal and its presence on the commission’s agenda represent a “renewed, reborn connection of the university toward extension.”

“We have long recognized that partnerships with agencies and individuals outside our organization are critical, and this new structure at the campus level would make inside partnerships — those among all the colleges and schools — equally as evident and critical to Cooperative Extension’s future,” he said.

Partnerships also can be tools in leveraging outside resources and in using inside resources more efficiently. With the latest projections showing tight state budgets through at least 2003, wise use of funds and manpower will be increasingly important at a time when Cooperative Extension is being called upon to address increasingly complex issues. Campus specialists must collaborate across disciplines, Ort said, and field faculty across county lines.

Agents in four neighboring mountain counties are doing just that, and their partnership is enabling them to respond to gardening and landscaping questions quickly and more thoroughly. Allen Caldwell, Lenny Rogers, Reagan Ammons and Fred Miller have set up a World Wide Web site that they call the Unifour Successful Gardener Message Board.

People from Alexander, Burke, Caldwell and Catawba counties type horticulture-related questions on a form, and one or more of the agents will answer — usually within an hour or two. Extension clients benefit in two ways: They get a timely response even if their county agents happen to be out of the office, and they can tap the knowledge of more than one agent.

If one of the agents thinks of something to add to the first answer, they do so, providing a more complete answer, said Rogers, director of the Extension center in Alexander County. “We also link our answers to university publications that contain even more information.”

The Web site enables the agents to expand their reach. When they answer a question over the telephone, only the caller benefits from the answer. With the Web board, anyone with Internet access and a similar problem can benefit.

The horticulture message board is but one way that agents across the state are harnessing the power of new technology and building partnerships to enhance their educational programming.

Tom Dyson, an agent in northeastern North Carolina, has found another way. With Internet and videoconferencing technology, he has forged a partnership with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Plant Disease and Insect Clinic. That partnership is helping farmers, landscape managers and home gardeners diagnose and deal with problems faster than ever.

Dyson used grant funds to set up an Internet Microscopy Clinic that enables him to send virtual plant and insect samples — pictures, actually — through the Internet to the N.C. State clinic. The photographs come from videotapes that Dyson creates in the field and microscope-video images made in the office clinic. They also can come from videotapes shot by clients using their own home video cameras.

By using a video camera rather than a digital camera, Dyson is able to obtain images sharp enough to magnify several times. That way, using the microscopes in his clinic, he can zoom in on a problem from multiple angles, giving university specialists the information they need to make a proper diagnosis. Within a few minutes, he’s able to use his computer to post the images on the World Wide Web or send them via E-mail.

Recently, he has begun experimenting with videoconferencing. Dr. Gerald Holmes, an N.C. State plant pathologist, demonstrated the system at a meeting of scientists in Canada. From Edenton, Dyson was able to show Holmes’ audience of plant pathologists images of his plant sample. The scientists were able to guide Dyson’s hand at the microscope — “a little to the left,” “focus there now” — so that they could get the information they needed. A diagnosis followed within minutes.

Such speed can save crops — enabling farmers to apply effective treatments before the problem overtakes the crop.

Technology, Dyson said, “puts the university a lot closer to my office.” And to the people he serves.

Bringing the expertise of the land-grant university to the people is what Cooperative Extension will always be about.

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