UC Davis Professor Suggests Update to Agricultural Cooperative Extension

UC Davis Professor Suggests Update to Agricultural Cooperative Extension

October 15, 2014

There is a Growing Network of New Technology to Update Cooperative Extension and Help California’s Farmers

By Diane Nelson, Senior Writer, UC Davis Ag and Environmental Sciences

 

California’s growers and ranchers get their agricultural information from multiple sources in a variety of ways. Intuitively, most of us know that. But new research by UC Davis Professor Mark Lubell, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, provides empirical evidence that the state’s agriculture community relies on a network of people using new information technologies to make land-use and orchard-management decisions.

Mark Lubell, professor of Environmental Science and Policy at UC Davis (Source: UC Davis)
Mark Lubell, UC Davis Professor of Environmental Science and Policy (Source: UC Davis)

“Over the last century, agricultural knowledge systems have evolved into networks of widely distributed actors with a diversity of specializations and expertise,” said Lubell, lead author of, “Extension 3.0: Managing Agricultural Knowledge Systems in the Network Age,” research recently published in Society & Natural Resources.

Lubell and his team hope their work will help agriculture cooperative extension programs harness the potential of these evolving personal and professional networks and make them explicit components of their outreach strategies.

Extension 3.0

Since land-grant universities were created in the late 19th century, University of California Cooperative Extension has been the state’s main campus-to-community connection that delivers sound, scientific data to growers and ranchers, landowners, environmental groups, and consumers to help develop practical solutions to real-world problems. In the early days, extension specialist shared information in person, meeting with farmers in fields or coffee shops or town halls.

The system has evolved over time, as farming has become more specialized. And the systems still works, said Lubell and coauthors Meredith Niles, UC Davis ecology alumna, and Matthew Hoffman, grower program coordinator with the Lodi Winegrape Commission. But, they argue, it could use an update. They outline a case for what Lubell calls “Extension 3.0,” a modern model for agriculture extension that capitalizes on social learning, information technology, and evolving networks of expertise.

Reviewing 10 years of surveys, Lubell’s team studied how California’s growers and ranchers make farming decisions and who they turn to for advice. They learned that Cooperative Extension specialists and farm advisers are still primary trusted sources, but respondents are also influenced by pest control advisors, local leaders, commodity groups, sales representatives, fellow farmers, and others.

“Our research provides an empirical layer to support what many Cooperative Extension specialists and advisors already do,” Hoffman said. “It’s about making sure information reaches the right people in the right way at the right place and time.”

The authors are not calling to eliminate traditional extension professionals nor suggesting all current outreach strategies be converted to more modern methods like social media, webinars and smartphone applications.

“Instead, Extension 3.0 seeks to understand how personal networks and new information and communication technologies can work together,” Lubell said.

The authors recognize social media is already a part of agricultural extension, and they know they aren’t the first to recognize its importance. But they encourage extension programs to formalize social media, information technology, and network science as part of their hiring, training and outreach strategies.

“Extension systems and professionals must be experimental, adaptive and creative with program design and implementation to maximize the synergy between experiential, technical and social learning,” Lubell said.

 

Encouraging conversation

Aubrey White, communications coordinator for the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis, says she finds news she can use in “Extension 3.0.”

“Understanding key linkages in a community or area of research can dramatically shorten the distance between knowledge-seekers and knowledge-holders,” White said. “Lubell’s article reminds us that extension is not just delivering information, but creating conversation.”

Cooperative Extension specialist Ken Tate, rangeland watershed expert with the UC Davis Department of Plant Sciences, has been a longtime proponent of collaboration and conversation.

“For me, the study reaffirms that we shouldn’t abandon what works — face-to-face meetings, for example — but we have to keep building and adopting new components. Content is the key. We need to produce good science and provide practical solutions, and then use the best means possible to make sure that information reaches the people we serve, and helps meet society’s needs.”

You can read the full journal article on the Center for Environmental Policy and Behavior website.

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