Envisioning New Roles for land-grant university Extension: Lessons learned from climate change outreach in the Midwest

By Linda Prokopy and Rebecca Power

The Extension Reconsidered blog features posts from guest contributors who care about Cooperative Extension, the land-grant mission, community arts and humanities, civic engagement, and other issues related to the Extension Reconsidered initiative.

We have been working together for over four years on a USDA-NIFA funded project called Useful to Usable (U2U) that is developing climate information for corn producers in the North Central Region (http://www.agclimate4u.org). As part of this project, we have conducted surveys with farmers, Extension personnel and agricultural advisors. We have broadly defined agricultural advisors for the purpose of this study and surveyed state agency staff (Departments of Agriculture, Departments of Environment), Federal agency staff (NRCS and FFA), county agency staff (Soil and Water Conservation Districts), agricultural bankers, Certified Crop Advisors, input dealers among others. Surveyed farmers managed over 80 acres of corn and grossed $100,000 in 2011; operators of small farms are not included in this analysis. Extension educators surveyed were in agriculture and natural resources program areas.

These surveys revealed several interesting findings that suggest new directions for Extension in our region.

  1. Land-grant university Extension educators do not believe in anthropogenic climate change at the same level as university scientists (Prokopy et al. 2015b; see Table 1). This reveals a troubling disconnect between climate science and Extension, which has a critical role in disseminating the best science to the public and effectively conveying the needs of the public to university researchers.
  2. Medium and large sized corn farmers are most influenced in their farm management decisions by Certified Crop Advisors and input dealers. A full 40% of farmers who responded to our farmer survey said they had no contact with extension or were not influenced by them. Certified Crop Advisors and input dealers were cited as having a much greater influence (Davidson et al. 2015; see Figure 1). However, in other work we have conducted, we found that farmers in the Midwest trust Extension more than they trust other groups (Mase et al. in press).
  3. The diversity of advisors that we surveyed trust Extension more than they trust any other group for climate related information (Prokopy et al. 2015a; see Figure 2).


Table 1: Excerpt from Prokopy et al. 2015b. CSCAP is the Corn-Based Cropping Systems Coordinated Agricultural Project (www.sustainablecorn.org) funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.


Figure 1: Excerpt from Davidson et al. 2015. Results of a 2012 survey of 4778 medium- to large sized corn producers in the Midwestern United States, conducted by scientists from U2U and the CSCAP. Results presented are in response to the question, “Please indicate how influential the following groups and individuals are when you make decisions about agricultural practices and strategies.” More information about the methodology of this survey and survey findings can be found in Arbuckle et al. (2013) and Loy et al (2013). FSA is the USDA Farm Services Agency. NRCS is the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.


Figure 2: Excerpt from Prokopy et al. 2015a. Non-extension agricultural advisors’ trust in different groups as sources of information about climate change. This diverging stacked bar chart presents the trust data sorted by “Strongly trust.” The axis is the count of the number of respondents. Bars to the right of 0 indicate trust and bars to the left of 0 indicate distrust.

What does this mean for the future of land-grant university Extension and research in addressing issues related to climate change and agriculture? While our research relates to research and education on anthropogenic climate change, we suggest this research asks us to consider the following:

  1. There needs to be more ongoing communication between land-grant university researchers (with and without Extension appointments) and Extension educators. Land-grant university researchers need to do a better job communicating climate-related scientific findings to Extension educators. Similarly, Extension educators need to communicate to researchers what they are hearing from farmers, agricultural advisors, and agriculture and conservation agencies and organizations — those with a stake in research results. Extension educators can help ensure that research is both meeting user needs and is communicated effectively.
  2. There needs to be a strong institutional commitment to ensure that both university researchers and Extension educators are rewarded in the tenure and promotion system for building these relationships. While there are strong examples across the country of researchers and educators collaborating on climate-related programming in agriculture, land-grant university administrators can facilitate more consistent collaboration by emphasizing the value of integrated research and extension in tenure, promotion, and other reward systems.
  3. Extension educators need to continue cultivating relationships with agricultural advisors and expand programs that emphasize agricultural advisors as recipients of university research and tools. Given that farmers and agricultural advisors trust Extension, and given that Extension has fewer “boots on the ground” in many states, strengthening programming to agricultural advisors can maximize impact and be a strategic allocation of land-grant university resources.

Climate-related information is critical for farmers and to sustain the production of food, fiber, fuel, and to keep rural communities that rely on agriculture strong. Extension has the capacity to provide leadership in translating climate-related information for farmers. We hope that research coming out of U2U and the other projects we describe above can inform Extension’s future and benefit the people land-grant universities serve.

We’re interested in your feedback on these ideas. Please feel free to contact either of us:
Linda Prokopy – lprokopy@purdue.edu
Rebecca Power – rlpower@wisc.edu

References; please contact Dr. Prokopy if you would like a copy of any of these.

Arbuckle, J. Gordon Jr., Linda Stalker Prokopy, Tonya Haigh, Jon Hobbs, Tricia Knoot, Cody Knutson, Adam Loy, Amber Saylor Mase, Jean McGuire, Lois Wright Morton, John Tyndall and Melissa Widhalm. 2013. Climate Change beliefs, Concerns, and Attitudes Toward Adaptation and Mitigation Among Farmers in the Midwestern United States. Climatic Change, 117(4): 943–950.

Davidson, Eric A., Emma C. Suddick, Charles W. Rice, Linda S. Prokopy. 2015. More Food, Low Pollution (Mo Fo Lo Po): A Grand Challenge for the 21st Century. Journal of Environmental Quality, 44: 305-311.

Loy, A., J. Hobbs J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr., L. Wright Morton, L.S. Prokopy, T. Haigh, T. Knoot, C. Knutson, A.S Mase, J. McGuire, J. Tyndall, and M. Widhalm. 2013. Farmer Perspectives on Agriculture and Weather Variability in the Corn Belt: A Statistical Atlas. Cropping Systems Coordinated Agricultural Project 0153-2013. Ames, IA: Cropping Systems Coordinated Agricultural Project: Climate Change, Mitigation, and Adaptation in Cornbased Cropping Systems.

Mase, Amber Saylor, Nicholas L. Babin, Linda Stalker Prokopy, Kenneth Genskow. In Press. Trust in Sources of Soil and Water Quality Information: Implications for Environmental Outreach and Education. Journal of the American Water Resources Association.

Prokopy, Linda Stalker, J. Staurt Carlton, J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr., Tonya Haigh, Maria Carmen Lemos, Amber Saylor Mase, Nicholas Babin, Mike Dunn, Jeff Andresen, Jim Angel, Chad Hart, Rebecca Power. 2015a. Extension’s Role in Disseminating Information about Climate Change to Agricultural Stakeholders. Climatic Change, 130(2): 261-272.

Prokopy, Linda Stalker, Lois Wright Morton, J. Gordon Arbuckle Jr., Amber Saylor Mase, Adam Wilke. 2015b. Agricultural Stakeholder Views on Climate Change: Implications for Conducting Research and Outreach. Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

Cultivating Community Vitality: Reflections from Northern California

By Holly George, County Department Head & Livestock/Natural Resources Advisor, University of California Cooperative Extension Plumas-Sierra Counties

The Extension Reconsidered blog features posts from guest contributors who care about Cooperative Extension, the land-grant mission, community arts and humanities, civic engagement, and other issues related to the Extension Reconsidered initiative.

After 30+ years on the job, I feel Cooperative Extension can make the most impact by embracing the community development component of our jobs and stepping out of the safe box of academia. Many people associated with land grant systems are comfortable with biological and environmental sciences but shy away from social science.

Holly George at a ranch in northeastern California. Image provided by the author.

Holly George at a ranch in northeastern California. Image provided by the author.

I was no different when I started with University of California Cooperative Extension as the first female Livestock, Natural Resources Farm Advisor in 1983 in two Bay Area counties. I liked working with livestock, and being outdoors and providing informal education appealed to me. I almost didn’t apply for that first job as “land use” was part of the job title. I was an animal science major with an agriculture teaching degree who knew a bit about range and pasture management, but land use policy sounded messy and unrelated to my studies.

I quickly learned that some of those “messy” topics (land use, water quantity and quality, public lands management, economic viability, etc.) are the weak links in the livelihood of my primary clientele.

The challenges that these topics represent are excellent opportunities for Cooperative Extension to practice civic engagement. We can bring people together to learn about and make decisions together about our communities, and help facilitate greater understanding among diverse audiences. I believe that this kind of work will contribute to better policies for our primary clientele & the resources they steward.

After working in two urban counties, I’ve spent most of my career in two rural northeastern California counties. We face many of the same natural resources and “commons” issues as others across the West. This region is predominately public lands with US Forest Service being the largest land manager in the area. There used to be lots of lumber mills; but now there is only one. Agriculture (pasture and range for cattle and hay production) covers most of the private land. We are at the headwaters of and provide over 25% of the water for the State Water Project. We have the largest alpine valley in the lower 48 states with amazing wildlife habitat. It is a beautiful part of the state, but a tough place to make a living.

It is also a geographically isolated place, and that makes it hard to have your voice heard. Over the course of my career, I have explored different ways to bring people together and help them share their stories across the challenges of distance and ideology.

Extension as a People Connector

The reality of my job is that while I am a Livestock-Natural Resources Advisor, I’m not the one managing the herds or owning the conserved lands myself. I work with the people who manage the livestock and natural resources. Thus I need diverse people and social science skills to be an effective “change agent”.

A few years ago, I collaborated with jesikah maria ross, a multi-media artist from Davis, California, who at the time was director of UC Davis Art of Regional Change. Jesikah was developing “Passion for the Land a multimedia project to help rural residents share their stories about preserving community heritage while protecting agricultural lands and natural resources for future generations.


Her work is an example of how a place-based Cooperative Extension advisor (me) tapped into artistic and technology resources to amplify the voices of 12 rural residents ranging in age from 24 to 84. A rancher challenged me to create one, so I did: Keeping People on the Land.

These personal digital stories, many with a ”call to action” targeted at decision makers and the voting public, have been shared with diverse audiences. For example:

  1. The Plumas County Planning Commission viewed Passion for the Land during one of their meetings and subsequently added optional Agriculture & Water Elements to the County General Plan Update.
  2. At the California Preservation Conference, we used Passion for the Land stories to remind people that preservation efforts might want to be expanded to include policies that support people involved in working landscapes (versus the traditional mode of preservation, which is saving a piece of ground from development or restoring an historic building).
  3. We shared on the Big Screen at the local movie theater including public Q&A with stories tellers as well as at the County Fair, conferences, schools, service group meetings.

Since then, Extension colleagues asked for help to do something similar in their areas. In response, jesikah and I created the Toolkit for Change, part facilitation guide and part training guide, which uses personal stories to help sustain working landscapes and rural communities. Extension Rangeland Watershed Specialist Ken Tate supported our effort by writing the preface. I subsequently taught digital storytelling to senior agriculture communication students at Chico State University and have helped other agriculture/natural resource professionals. Extension can help rural residents share their stories.


Connecting Art, Culture, and Agriculture

John Muir said, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread.” I see lots of natural connections between culture and agriculture. Planting a seed, cultivating, reaping what you sow—both farmer and artist share these activities. Both are independent, hard-working, passionate, and creative people. Have you ever seen what a rancher can do with baling wire and duct tape?

Last year, I added a new word to my vocabulary and hopefully it will soon be in yours. ”Cultureshed” is a term coined in 1988 by Jay Salinas, co-founder of Wisconsin’s Wormfarm Institute. It extrapolates from watershed (a region linked by its surface waters) and from foodshed (a more recent term describing an area that seeks to become nutritionally self-sufficient). I like it.

Cultureshed (n.): 1. A geographic region irrigated by streams of local talent and fed by deep pools of human and natural history. 2. An area nourished by what is cultivated locally. 3. The efforts of writers, performers, visual artists, scholars, farmers, and chefs who contribute to a vital and diverse local culture.

Food Education Agriculture Solutions Together (FEAST) participants enjoy a locally sourced meal at an October 2014 event hosted by Plumas-Sierra Community Food Council. Image provided by the author.

Food Education Agriculture Solutions Together (FEAST) participants enjoy a locally sourced meal at an October 2014 event hosted by Plumas-Sierra Community Food Council. Image provided by the author.

Similar to the French term terrior, it conveys the belief that an authentic, compelling culture arises from the particular microclimate, geography and population of a place. Cultureshed lifts up the idea that by nurturing a healthy culture, we build more vibrant, resilient and thriving places.

In my day-to-day work, I’ve seen how art and culture can nourish the economic (and in our case agricultural) life of a place, and vice versa. For years I’ve worked in “Agriculture & Nature Tourism”, and I am currently chair of California Extension’s Agritourism workgroup. Years ago, I attended the Carson Valley Eagles and Agriculture event. The connection between arts, natural resources and agriculture inspired me to work with local ranchers, the Audubon Society, and other organizations to create a daylong event in our own community called Barns, Birds and Barbeque. The objective was to showcase ranch stewardship, build relationships between ranchers and Audubon, plus put a face to the people in agriculture.


The success of these fun and informational events has grown into a series of local informal dinners in the barn and the Feather River Land Trust hosting a “Birds, Boats and BBQ” event on properties they own. Today, we even have a Tour De Manure bike race that benefits the local fire department.

Joining the “Creative Place Making” Movement

At Cooperative Extension, sound science is our core. I value accurate content; but I also care about process and presentation. I like to collaborate with colleagues who challenge the status quo way of doing things and inspire me to explore different ways of engaging clientele, policy makers, and the public. I see art and culture as a proven way to build relationships that lead to positive changes for the people and resources in the communities where I work and beyond.

It doesn’t matter that until recently I didn’t feel comfortable calling myself an artist. I can’t draw like Gail or sing like Sarah, but, like many of you, I’m a creative person in my own way. I love fiber arts and woodworking, and these are my own personal links to understanding the creativity, fresh ideas, and open-mindedness that arts and culture can offer each of us.


Part of my 2013 sabbatical leave was exploring vibrant rural communities. I wanted to improve my ability at connecting people and building bridges (relationships) among agriCULTURE, arts, local food and recreation so residents understand, appreciate and support the diverse contributions of each to the other.

“Creative place making” is a relatively new term used to describe arts and the role artists play in helping to shape a community’s social, economic and physical future. The activities and strategies are arts-based while the outcomes are intended to be placed-based.

This September, I attended the Cross-Currents: Art+Agriculture Powering Rural Economies Conference in Greensboro, NC. A few Extension colleagues attended this “creative place making” event. I’d encourage more Extension folks to participate in conferences like this. Push your comfort zone, explore opportunities to incorporate more creativity and engage diverse audiences to help you be better change agents.

Yes, California is in a drought and I’m working on environmental regulations. But a recent, less contentious effort I’ve undertaken is the called the Lost Sierra Community Collaboration bringing diverse members in my rural counties together to focus on positive possibilities aimed at accomplishing something together that is more than any of us can do working alone. Multi-generational ranchers, local businesses, beginning market gardeners, Arts Commission, Land Trust and Tourism folks are Building Bridges Among Ag, Art, Local Food and Recreation aimed at Improved Vitality for Residents and Visitors in Plumas and Sierra Counties. I am happy with the progress we’re making and excited the Arts Commission decided to have their 2016 calendar be the Faces and Places of Local Agriculture.

We are building community.

As trusted network weavers, Cooperative Extension can help individuals and groups in growing a sense of unity and pride for this place we all call home. We want local residents to thrive, and we want to encourage innovation in our rural economies. Then, together we can expand authentic tourism experiences for visitors to our unique part of the world…sharing glimpses of who we are, where we live and why we care.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2015 from Holly George in northeastern California. Image provided by the author.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy 2015 from Holly George in northeastern California. Image provided by the author.

Opinions presented on the Extension Reconsidered blog belong to the authors. Contact Jen Jensen (jkj37[at]cornell.edu) to contribute, or comment here to share your thoughts. Follow @extrecon on Twitter for blog updates or read more about the Extension Reconsidered initiative at our website.

Listening with Purpose

By Cathann Kress, Iowa State University Extension & Outreach vice president

The Extension Reconsidered blog features posts from guest contributors who care about Cooperative Extension, the land-grant mission, community arts and humanities, civic engagement, and other issues related to the Extension Reconsidered initiative. This post originally appeared on See You There, a blog for Iowa State University Extension staff and county council members, and is published with permission here.

One of my favorite family events is coming soon. To kick off our holidays, members of my family gather and light candles, bake a Buche de Noel, and then proceed to eat and talk until most of the candles go out. Stories are told, and retold, often embellished. Sometimes myths are corrected or new stories emerge. My favorite part of the event is watching everyone’s faces in the candlelight and listening — really listening to our family lore from the silly to the sublime and hearing it told from different perspectives. It’s been fun to hear about the escapades of my elderly uncles as young rapscallions, to hear younger members tell a new story, or remember with fondness tales of those we’ve lost. I always gain strength from listening and it broadens my understanding of my family.

Sometimes we just need to get someone else’s point of view, to gather different perceptions, to see issues from other angles. To limit the future to only what we know shrinks our capacity. It’s easy to fall into patterns of preserving our view over all else — but this is how important listening is — it is the beginning of learning.

That’s why in 2014 we called upon potential constituents and long-time partners to listen to their perspectives firsthand about how to best serve the needs of Iowans. We heard from Iowa Millennials and Gen X’ers during our Young Iowans Speak forum. It was the first in a series of “Extension Reconsidered” forums held throughout the nation to mark the centennial of the Smith-Lever Act. The young Iowans, ages 18 to 35, were from both urban and rural places. Some had prior experience with us, while others knew nothing about our work. We asked the young Iowans to share their views and visions of the future and Iowa State’s role in that future.

From May through November, West Pottawattamie, Kossuth, Warren, Dubuque and Linn county extension councils hosted town meetings. Participants in these sessions included rural economic development groups; community college presidents; Councils of Governments; representatives from K-12 schools, public health, and local nonprofit organizations; and other community leaders. We asked our partners about why they engage with ISU Extension and Outreach, how we can improve our relationship, and ways we can further collaborate.

Then we listened. Intentionally. Respectfully. With purpose.  Because here’s the thing: listening makes us stronger and it broadens our understanding of our work.  See you there.

– Cathann

P.S. Watch the video, get the story, and print the report to learn more about Young Iowans Speak and Partner Perspectives. You can follow me on Twitter @cathannkress.

Opinions presented on the Extension Reconsidered blog belong to the authors. Contact Jen Jensen (jkj37[at]cornell.edu) to contribute, or comment here to share your thoughts. Follow @extrecon on Twitter for blog updates or read more about the Extension Reconsidered initiative at our website.

Disasters, Extension, and the Cultural Arts: Unlikely partners?

By Mike Spranger, Professor and Community Development Specialist at University of Florida

The Extension Reconsidered blog features posts from guest contributors who care about Cooperative Extension, the land-grant mission, community arts and humanities, civic engagement, and other issues related to the Extension Reconsidered initiative.

How can the cultural arts help in post-disaster community recovery programs? A lot!

In 2012, tropical storm Debby dumped more than 30 inches of rain in a 24 hour period on the community of Live Oak, Florida. Immediately after this event, there was mayhem as the community dealt with the aftermath of the storm that included flooding of its downtown area and more than 30 sinkholes in the area.

Downtown Live Oak, Florida, during the flood that resulted from tropical storm Debbie in 2012.

Downtown Live Oak, Florida, during the flood that resulted from tropical storm Debbie in 2012. Photo courtesy of the author.

Families were displaced, businesses closed and the small community had over $5 million in damages. Particularly devastating was the formation of a large sink hole approximately 180 feet deep in the downtown area between the courthouse and several historic buildings. These buildings were extensively damaged and had to be condemned and demolished.

A major question became: what can Live Oak do with this vacant property in the damaged downtown area?

The Governor declared Live Oak a disaster area and visited the site. Federal and state funds and technical assistance flowed in, yet the community still seemed adrift. Newly elected Councilman Keith Mixon wondered what other resources could be utilized to help the community.

Councilman Mixon, who stands over six feet tall, shows the apex of the flood waters. Photo courtesy of the author.

Councilman Mixon, who stands over six feet tall, shows the apex of the flood waters. Photo courtesy of the author.

Mr. Mixon contacted the local Cooperative Extension office to see if they could provide any assistance. The county extension director reached out to University of Florida Extension faculty in my office to see what we could do.

Our first answer was that we don’t know, but we were willing to travel to the community to find out what the needs were. We hosted a scoping session with local elected officials, city staff, and members of the business community. This was followed up by review of various reports and follow-up calls with elected officials and staff.

Using the arts to see things differently

Then in late November 2012 we led a community vision session where government officials, business leaders and interested members of the public attended. At this meeting, the University of Florida community development specialists provided a good news/bad news message. The bad news was that we told them we were not the panacea to their problems. The good news was that the solutions to their problems rested with those who were in the room and others in the community.

We also discussed other communities had resolved similar problems. A brain-storming session next led us to coordinate a bus tour to see how Community Redevelopment Agency funds had been utilized for revitalization efforts in surrounding communities.

The bus tour brought together members of the public and private sector, including artists and individuals interested in the local heritage. During the bus tour, there was an “Aha!” moment when several elected officials saw they could do things differently in Live Oak. They began to imagine utilizing their redevelopment funds creatively by including cultural arts and involving the community in ways that they had not previously considered.

In the spring, the Extension community development specialists also saw an opportunity for the community to apply for a grant funded by the National Endowment of the Arts, working through the Citizens Institute on Rural Design (CIRD).CIRD provides seed money and technical assistance for rural communities to build on their existing assets. Working with the CED, the community put an application together. Their submission for the CIRD grant award was selected from a national pool of 31 applicants. The county Extension director worked closely with the CIRD staff and community leaders over the next several months to coordinate a community workshop. She also was able to secure a major grant from the National Association of Realtors to help in these efforts.

In the fall of 2013, a community workshop was held in the historic passenger train depot that brought together local leaders from non-profits, community organizations, and government to discuss and identify actionable solutions to the community’s pressing design challenges. Four nationally renowned experts provided hands-on presentations about the development of a new marketing brand for the community, an examination of the connectivity and walkability within the community, and ideas for new business development.

During the community workshop, participants created prototypes of how they imagined a rebuilt Live Oak. Photo courtesy of the author.

During the community workshop, participants created prototypes of how they imagined a rebuilt Live Oak. Photo courtesy of the author.

Active in this workshop were a number of artists who brought their ideas of the cultural arts into the discussion. The workshop took a fun, active approach where participants created their own models for their ideal community of Live Oak, worked with the local artists to sketch logos for the town, and considered pedestrian and cyclist street improvement on a walking tour. Food and social activities were also prominent as ways to bring this active group closer together. A local businessman developed a great video that demonstrated the energy and enthusiasm generated by these activities.

The workshop closed on Saturday morning with a community-wide event at Heritage Park and Gardens where all the work that had been done over the course of two days was unveiled. The newly designed logos and model city that were created during the workshop was shared with community members who attended this event.

Building a hands-on community, together

Today, there is a new buzz in the air as residents begin to see the city as a glass half full of potential and promises rather than a glass half empty with pessimism and no hope for the future. Over the past two years, University of Florida Extension faculty have brought resources and expertise to bear to help build local community capacity in downtown redevelopment.

A number of positive things have happened since the devastating flood of June 2012. There is increased participation in local meetings as public notices are now sent to a new listserv developed as a way to link those involved in these initial meetings. Elected officials and city staff have increased their knowledge and skills in utilizing public funds and implementing projects in their redevelopment activities. New projects have been funded, including The Rails to Trails Project and The West Side Retail Area Project. The Live Oak Heritage Trail, which connects the downtown with Heritage Park and Gardens is now complete, and sidewalks have been installed that connect it to the downtown.

Community citizens are more engaged. They now approach the county Extension office and elected officials in unsolicited proposals (e.g. Paint the Town, Artist in Residence, Parade of Trees, Lunch in the Park) to assist in the redevelopment efforts. Elected officials and business leaders took a feasibility tour for ideas to build an amphitheater for cultural events. A startup business retention and expansion program was created.

New programs and events are making the downtown more vibrant: a Farmer’s Market now takes place there every Friday. The downtown of Live Oak also came alive with the July 4th Freedom Festival, a family friendly event that attracted approximately 3,000 people.


Most recently the first Jazz, Arts and Blues Festival was held on October 24-25, 2014. Councilman Mixon was the catalyst for the festival. The event started on Friday with a “Paint-out” with local artists, followed by an Artist Wine and Cheese Reception and a “Wet Canvas Sale.”

On Saturday, a number of bands from Florida and south Georgia entertained more than 1,000 individuals who came to enjoy the great music, food and weather. This was on the site of two historical buildings that were condemned due to the 2012 floods. This area was just designated as “Festival Park” by the Live Oak community redevelopment agency. Plans are already underway to plan a bigger event for 2015.

The community is also looking at revisiting their rich history and providing opportunities for both residents and visitors to learn about it. In November they will be holding the Raid on the Suwannee Reenactment and Living History Festival at Heritage Park. This will be a living history event and civic war enactment. There will be events throughout the day leading up to the event.

Have all the issues been resolved in Live Oak? No, far from it. The community redevelopment efforts remain a work in progress. But the community is on a much more positive direction with renewed commitment, and people IN the community are recognizing that they are the ones that can move Live Oak forward.

Elected officials have said that the University of Florida Extension faculty helped move the community forward and provided the community with new direction and purpose. Mr. Mixon publicly stated in a letter to University of Florida administrators that Live Oak had significant funds and technical assistance from federal and state agencies to deal with the aftermath of the flood, but that Extension helped bring the community together. However, the bottom line is that members in the community now recognize that they can make a difference in their community and are taking action to become more engaged and active. They are also building on their rich history and talents and realizing that the cultural arts can be a vital part of their community and their future.


Mike Spranger is Professor and Extension Community Development Specialist in the Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences at the University of Florida. He has 35 years of experience in university outreach activities. He previously worked at the University of Washington, Washington State University and University of Wisconsin. Contact him directly at spranger[at]ufl.edu.

Opinions presented on the Extension Reconsidered blog belong to the authors. Contact Jen Jensen (jkj37[at]cornell.edu) to contribute, or comment here to share your thoughts. Follow @extrecon on Twitter for blog updates or read more about the Extension Reconsidered initiative at our website.

University Extension and the next generation: Innovate, or wait and react?

by Paul Hill, Utah State University Extension assistant professor and 4-H agent

The Extension Reconsidered blog features posts from guest contributors who care about Cooperative Extension, the land-grant mission, community arts and humanities, civic engagement, and other issues related to the Extension Reconsidered initiative.

Whether some choose to believe it or not, it is a critical time for Extension.

As we celebrate a century of success, it becomes essential to pause and contemplate the future. As a national system we face budgetary realities, workforce demographics, as well as social and technological advancements. Now, the questions we must answer are, “What do we do next? Do we innovate? Or wait and react?”

I may be a cynical Millennial working in a sea of baby boomers, but even so I believe Extension is needed as much today as it ever was.

Regardless, change is inevitable. You’ve heard it before, but I believe “the best defense is a good offense.” Therefore, actualizing an offensive approach to change will best secure our organizations in providing remarkable service over the next 100 years.

I follow North Carolina Cooperative Extension on Twitter and was impressed by their leadership’s transparent, offensive approach to the organization’s visioning initiative. Soon after North Carolina launched a strategic vision and planning initiative, I’m proud to say Utah State University (USU) Extension began its endeavor to act swiftly by looking towards the future.

Recognizing that change is an ever-present possibility, the leadership of USU Extension formed a visioning team in 2013 to improve the way our Extension service functions in Utah. As a member of this team, we were tasked with developing recommendations for organizational impact, relevance, and sustainability.

After reviewing our charge, guiding principles, current structure, programs, and business, we sought the collection of data. We did this by first compiling and reviewing the organizational plans of other Extension services. Next, we conducted an internal survey with our own workforce and stakeholders.

Paul Hill collecting ideas from a fellow USU Extension colleague about objectives for the visioning initiative. Photo courtesy of the author.

Paul Hill collecting ideas from a fellow USU Extension colleague about objectives for the visioning initiative. Photo courtesy of the author.

Based on the data collected and analyzed, the following key strategic objectives were determined:

  • Increase employee fulfillment and satisfaction/improve retention
  • Develop distinct “information” and “experience” delivery models
  • Reduce the number/replication of tenure track faculty in each county
  • Increase teaming/programmatic partnerships
  • Increase Extension productivity/accountability of specialists
  • Increase technology-based delivery and communication
  • Increase urban impact
  • Increase name recognition and Extension brand

I’m in love with these objectives and our vision for the future!

Specific tactics were outlined for each strategic objective and the leadership of USU Extension is forming working groups tasked with carefully overhauling and improving our current system.

From our internal survey, we learned that the most significant concern of our workforce is the implementation of a mentoring and retention program.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Really? Mentoring?” I asked the same snarky question.

In my shortsighted perspective, I was very surprised as I reviewed the survey results. Of course, you guessed it; my primary concern for the future is the widespread use of technology in teaching and marketing our programs…as if technology can solve all problems. I admit it, I think “technology first” when it comes to problem solving. Is it just me? Or it is the flaw of much of my fellow Millennials?

BUT…after further study and discussion, here’s why I now agree with a mentoring program:

Baby boomers make up the majority of Extension’s workforce in Utah and many are set to retire very soon. After reflecting over this impending turnover I envisioned the possibility of us missing a huge opportunity. The baby boomer generation possesses years of experience, knowledge and insight – all of which is invaluable. A mentoring program would facilitate the transfer of knowledge to the next generation. But, before they retire, there are also countless opportunities for boomers to learn from and engage Millennials.

USU Extension faculty discussing the implementation of visioning initiative objectives. Photo courtesy of the author.

USU Extension faculty discussing the implementation of visioning initiative objectives. Photo courtesy of the author.

Another challenge we have is retaining Millennials (this means engaging us). I’ve found the work of Claire Raines Associates, a firm that provides professional generational training, very useful. They have identified their eight most frequent requests of Millennials at work:

  • Help us learn
  • Believe in us
  • Tune in to our technology
  • Connect us
  • Let us make it our own
  • Tell us how we’re doing
  • Be approachable
  • Be someone we can believe in

We all know generational differences are real; addressing these differences by effectively connecting people through a mentoring program should enhance the culture and development of our organizations. I believe this is something we all want for the very near future.

Change will happen. If we wait for it, we can only react as creatures of circumstance. A far better choice is to change on our own terms, as creators of circumstance.

We in Extension have the ability to design our own future depending on the choices we make and our willingness to do what it takes. What will you do next? Innovate? Or wait and react?


Paul Hill is himself a Millennial as well as a 4H Cooperative Extension educator. He spends a lot of time thinking about STEM and the future of both his community and Extension. Read his blog, Soft Leadership: Lighten up, lead, and do work that matters, at http://www.paulallenhill.com/, including posts like “Extension is Broken” and “How to Fix Extension.”

Opinions presented on the Extension Reconsidered blog belong to the authors. Contact Jen Jensen (jkj37[at]cornell.edu) to contribute, or comment here to share your thoughts. Follow @extrecon on Twitter for blog updates or read more about the Extension Reconsidered initiative at our website.

The Real Golden Age

By Cathann Kress, Iowa State University Extension & Outreach vice president

The Extension Reconsidered blog features posts from guest contributors who care about Cooperative Extension, the land-grant mission, community arts and humanities, civic engagement, and other issues related to the Extension Reconsidered initiative. This post originally appeared on See You There, a blog for Iowa State University Extension staff and county council members, and is published with permission here.

If you’ve been around Extension and Outreach for any amount of time, you’ve likely heard someone refer to the past as if it were the “Golden Age of Extension.” I know ever since I was a 4-H Educator in Benton and Tama counties, I’ve had this impression that once upon a time extension was characterized by peace, harmony, stability, and prosperity. During that time, we assume working in extension was easy and wonderful, with plenty of resources, and the unflagging appreciation of the public.

But when was that, exactly? Was it a hundred years ago as extension began? When early extension pioneers made their rounds by horse and buggy with little value placed on a university which few citizens understood? Given the struggles those educators had just communicating, not to mention encouraging adoption of research-based techniques – I wonder. Maybe it was in the 1930s — the era of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression? Maybe not. How about the 1940s and 1950s — after all, isn’t that when Norman Rockwell painted that iconic painting of the County Agent? Oh, wait — with the recovery following World War II? Hmmmm.

I do believe there is a golden age of Extension — it is before us, right now. At no other time have we had the resources and technology at our disposal, the ease of communication and networking, or the recognition of the importance of access to the educational resources of our university.

Think about it: Our faculty and staff are about 1,000 strong, working with families and youth, farmers and agribusiness professionals, and businesses and communities all across the state. Each year nearly 1 million people directly benefit from our educational programs. We’re communicating with each other, our partners, and our clients face-to-face, as well as using computers, iPads, and smart phones. We can videoconference, teleconference, or still meet for coffee at the Ivy Bake Shoppe. Last year Iowans connected virtually with us through more than 1.5 million website visits and downloads of educational materials and courses. Can you imagine how our early educators would marvel at our technology and envy the resources we have in our program portfolio?

We must continue to build on this work, to widen the circle of our reach throughout the state, to live up to the legacy and the dreams of those extension educators who preceded us. Every dollar that Iowans invest in Extension and Outreach pays back dividends — when entrepreneurs start businesses, families make healthy choices, youth become leaders for the future, and communities become better places to live. We are lucky enough to be stewards of Iowa State University Extension and Outreach when a golden age is upon us. See you there.

Opinions presented on the Extension Reconsidered blog belong to the authors. Contact Jen Jensen (jkj37[at]cornell.edu) to contribute, or comment here to share your thoughts. Follow @extrecon on Twitter for blog updates or read more about the Extension Reconsidered initiative at our website.

Collaboration, Creativity and Civic Engagement with The Talking Band

By Andy Horwitz, Founder, Culturebot Arts & Media, Inc.

The Extension Reconsidered blog features posts from guest contributors who care about Cooperative Extension, the land-grant mission, community arts and humanities, civic engagement, and other issues related to the Extension Reconsidered initiative.

In June 2013 I went to see The Talking Band’s play Marcellus Shale at the La Mama Theater in New York City’s East Village. I’ll be honest; I was skeptical. I had heard the play was about fracking and I attended the show fully expecting to be subjected to a didactic story told through familiar diatribes about the environmental and economic destruction wrought by corporate oil on unsuspecting American citizens.

I guess somehow I forgot that that is not what The Talking Band does.

Marcellus Shale, inspired by Talking Band members Paul Zimet & Ellen Maddow’s firsthand experience when their upstate New York community was divided by fracking, offers a nuanced and thoughtful exploration of this divisive and contentious issue.

The opposing views of a spectrum of characters – a veteran with PTSD, local farmers who sold their rights, and those who refused, women “Prayer Warriors” from the local church, spectral “Men In Suits”, Occupy Wall Street-style radicals – all are given equal weight and complexity. The story is told in such a way that each character has respect and dignity; they struggle to maintain their human connections even as they hold ideologically irreconcilable positions.

In Marcellus Shale, The Talking Band moves beyond the talking points and into the underlying questions we all face when struggling with life-altering (and possibly life-threatening) decisions: “What really matters to you? What would be the last thing that you would give up? What do you consider a good life? Have you lived one? Are you living one now?”

Marcellus Shale Prayer Warriors. Photo courtesy of The Talking Band.

Marcellus Shale Prayer Warriors. Photo courtesy of The Talking Band.

After the performance Paul and I stood in front of La Mama on East 4th Street and talked about the play. He told me about the process of making the play, of the challenge of bringing the voices and stories of his upstate neighbors onto the stage, of honoring their human complexity while staying true to the Talking Band’s 40-year creative practice of collaboration and experimentation in theater.

As we talked, we started to think about how the play might work if individual regional productions were developed through a transparent, collaborative, community-engaged process. What would it look like to engage local individuals and groups associated with the various ideological positions represented in the play in a collaborative, creative process of making the play?

But let me explain – and maybe this is a bit of theater “insider baseball” – The Talking Band’s original interdisciplinary performance work has been a cornerstone of New York City’s avant-garde theater community for 40 years. Founded in 1974 by Paul Zimet, Ellen Maddow, and Tina Shepard (all former members of Joseph Chaikin’s seminal Open Theater), the company has produced over forty new works marked by a commitment to radical collaboration and a fusion of diverse theatrical styles and perspectives.

For 40 years The Talking Band has been illuminating the extraordinary dimensions of ordinary life through their elegant, eloquent, profound performance work. Combining richly textured music-theater with striking visual imagery, their work is infused with creative generosity that makes each show an experience that is as emotionally moving as it is aesthetically rich.

In a cultural moment where the infinite imagined futures of theater (and cultural life in America, generally) seem to be narrowed to a very few, mostly commercial and market-driven visions, The Talking Band stands in stark contrast. Their body of work and their way of working offers a powerful alternative, demonstrating the viability of a lived and living theater that is created by a community of artists and creates new communities around the ideas, questions, values and processes from which the work is born.

So we started imagining a framework where local productions of the play Marcellus Shale serve as platforms for civil discourse and civic engagement around the issue of fracking.

A conversation with Jan Cohen-Cruz led to a conference call with Scott J. Peters, Monica Hargraves and Rod Howe, where we learned about the Extension Reconsidered Initiative. After a thoughtful, wide-ranging and productive conversation we exchanged links and source materials via email. While reading Scott Peters’ preface to the new edition of Ruby Green Smith’s The People’s Colleges, we were struck by his words:

But people have more than problems; they have knowledge and creativity, hopes and ambitions, values and ideals. And they have a desire to learn and grow and to contribute to and make a difference in the world. Organizing opportunities for people to come together to develop, express, and pursue these things has been a part of what extension has done for over a century.

The belief that creativity and a desire to learn and grow is inherent in all people is central to The Talking Band’s understanding of theater as an art form; it infuses how they make their work and how they intend it to be received.

And as we consider the framework for building Marcellus Shale in and with communities, we are trying to be as expansively imaginative as possible. For inasmuch as it is a play about fracking, it is a play about people; it is influenced by Dostoevsky’s fiercely political novel Demons, some of the characters were inspired by the work of American photographer Alec Soth known for his “large-scale American projects” combining cinematic grandeur with the mythic scope of folklore, the design of the set and lights were influenced by the photographer Gregory Crewdson, who shares a similar aesthetic of finding the epic in everyday American life. So even as Marcellus Shale tackles the problem of fracking, it touches on many influences and poses questions about faith, family, community, ethics, history and philosophy.

Later in his preface to The People’s Colleges, Dr. Peters writes:

[The pursuit of the people’s college ideal] can be interwoven with gritty, down to earth problem-solving that involves ordinary, everyday things in ordinary, everyday places — things like weeds and diseases and pests on farms or disagreement and conflict in neighborhoods and communities. When it includes opportunities for meaningful contribution, for learning and growth, for the development and expression of people’s talents, power, creativity, imagination, judgment, and knowledge, problem solving can lead to personal and public happiness.

Golden Toad Episode 2: Songbus. Photo courtesy of The Talking Band.

Golden Toad Episode 2: Songbus. Photo courtesy of The Talking Band.

Our premise is to create partner cohorts comprised of a theatrical producing partner, an academic partner and a civic partner in communities affected by, or concerned about, fracking. These partners, in collaboration with The Talking Band, will develop and present unique versions of the play; the entire creative process will move in tandem with a participatory program of discussions, social events and open rehearsals.

We also hope that through this process we will provide local theater artists (and interested community members) an opportunity to be exposed to the theater-making practices of The Talking Band.

Over the course of forty years as one of America’s foremost collaborative ensembles, The Talking Band has developed a vast body of practical and theoretical strategies for making performance collaboratively and across disciplines. From acting to directing to music performance and stunning visuals, The Talking Band has pioneered an integrated, collaborative approach to theater making that resonates widely with young artists.

We are currently in the process of identifying and organizing local cohorts across the country and are in conversation with colleagues in Charleston, West Virginia; Telluride, Colorado; Detroit, Seattle and New Orleans. We are actively seeking additional partners in those cities as well as partners in Pennsylvania, New York and other communities where there is interest. We are especially looking for producing partners and/or academic partners who are interested in co-developing the framework.

If you are interested in participating or learning more, we’ll be at the upcoming Imagining America Conference in Atlanta, please find us. And if you are interested but unable to be in Atlanta in October, please drop us a line!

Opinions presented on the Extension Reconsidered blog belong to the authors. Contact Jen Jensen (jkj37[at]cornell.edu) to contribute, or comment here to share your thoughts. Follow @extrecon on Twitter for blog updates or read more about the Extension Reconsidered initiative at our website.

Cooperative Extension Reinvents Itself for the 21st Century

The Extension Reconsidered blog features posts from guest contributors who care about Cooperative Extension, the land-grant mission, community arts and humanities, civic engagement, and other issues related to the Extension Reconsidered initiative. This post originally appeared on Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, and is published with permission here.

By Marsha Mercer for Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts

For most of the last 15 years, Seth Wilner was the go-to guy for any and all questions about growing plants and animals in Sullivan County, New Hampshire.

“Used to be, someone in my county called up and said, `I have a llama and two goats, can you come out and look at my pasture?’” Wilner said of his former role as an educator with University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, his state’s version of a century-old, national effort to spread the latest livestock and agriculture knowledge from universities to farmers.

But after New Hampshire legislators slashed the extension’s budget by 23 percent in 2011, UNH revamped it.

Today, Wilner works out of an office in Sullivan County, but he travels all around the state advising farmers on the business of farming. He and the other field specialists still drive to farms to build relationships, but they also rely on technology like Google Chat and Skype and offer online tutorials and webinars.

Similar transformations are happening across the country as state cooperative extensions work to stay relevant in an era of smaller budgets, fewer farmers, a more diverse population and modern technology.

President Woodrow Wilson signed the law creating the Cooperative Extension Service in 1914. The goal of the unusual county-state-federal partnership was to share land-grant university research on agriculture, home economics and rural energy.  Back then, more than half the U.S. population lived in rural areas, and 30 percent of the workforce farmed.

Today, however, less than 2 percent of Americans farm for a living, and only 17 percent live in rural areas.  The extension service remains active in nearly all of the nation’s 3,000 counties, but the shift has prompted major changes in how it does business.

With fewer full-time employees—the size of the full-time workforce dropped 22 percent from 1980 to 2010, from 17,009 to 13,294 full-time workers—the extension service now relies heavily on nearly 3 million trained volunteers and its web site to disseminate information.

Extension still shares scientific research aimed at making farms and ranches more profitable. But it also works to protect the environment, ensure a safe food supply, respond to natural disasters, foster greater energy independence, help youth and adults be healthier and enhance workforce skills.

“How we remain relevant and well-connected is by focusing on the problems people have in our states,” said Daryl Buchholz, associate director of extension at Kansas State University. K-State Extension set five “grand challenges,” including raising food to feed the world and growing future leaders through 4-H, extension’s youth development program.

Agriculture Still the Backbone

For many states, agriculture remains the backbone of extension. Oregon extension, for example, brings together vineyard managers, winemakers and students for classes in person and online. As a result, wine grapes have catapulted to the 17th most important crop among 220 commodities in the state, according to A. Scott Reed, vice provost at Oregon State University and extension director.

Virginia Cooperative Extension has helped train more than 300 farmers in Virginia, the Carolinas and Kentucky get a head start on expected federal food safety regulations – and, in the meantime, expand their markets.

“I didn’t understand what it took to sell to the big box stores,” says Mike Calhoun of Churchville, Virginia, who spent 39 years in construction before buying three greenhouses three years ago. With help from county extension agent Amber Vallotton, he was able to get certified as having Good Agricultural Practices by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. More retailers are requiring growers to have GAP certification.

Vallotton spent about 25 to 30 hours at Calhoun’s farm without charge, helping him to write a food safety plan with worker sanitation, water quality, harvesting and packaging practices and prepare for an audit of his system. Farms are inspected annually to ensure compliance.

“If it hadn’t been for her, I don’t know if we’d ever have gotten it,” Calhoun said. “She’s been a godsend to most everybody around here.”

New Territory

In many states, extension is expanding its mission. For example, in southwest Kansas, which has a large immigrant population working in beef feeding and processing plants, extension has started bilingual 4-H clubs for immigrant children and their parents.

The idea came from Steve Irsik, owner of Royal Farms Dairy in Garden City, whose 60 workers are from Central and South America. In 2012, Irsik, a former 4-H member who serves on the state’s 4-H Foundation board, was brainstorming how to combat a decline in 4-H membership when he hit on serving the Latino community. The goal was to create one bilingual club of up to 30 youths and their parents, but soon there were four clubs with 90 youth and hundreds more on the waiting list.

“These people come here because they want to work and get ahead in life,” said Irsik. “If we don’t help them, we’re holding them back.”

Last year, after the Affordable Care Act insurance exchanges went live, the Delaware and Maryland extensions developed the Smart Choice training program to help consumers choose the right health insurance plan. The program has spread to 30 states, said Michelle Rodgers, director of University of Delaware Extension.

Extension services have worked for years on helping individuals fight obesity and improve health, but future efforts will engage the community on improving the environment for health, such as school lunch and restaurant menus, said Rodgers, who chairs extension’s task force on health.

The 4-H Food Smart Families program is helping 2,500 children and their families make good food choices in pilot projects in Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Nebraska and Washington, thanks to a $2 million grant from ConAgra Foods Foundation.

Changes in Funding

In another sign of changing times, the bilingual 4-H project was practically cost-free to the counties and Kansas State University. That’s because Irsik, the dairy owner, wrote a check for $30,000. Such personal generosity may be rare, but extension is turning increasingly to foundations and corporations to help pay the bills.

“Extension back in the day was funded about one-third federal, one-third state and one-third county,” said Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the federal National Institute of Food and Agriculture. “That model has frayed quite a bit.”

Federal money for the extension service—about $300 million this year—flows to the states by formula, based on rural and farm population and other factors, and must be matched by the states. Each land-grant university makes up a budget through a mix of state and local funds as well as grants, gifts and fees.

Federal funds account for only about 10 percent of current extension budgets, with 45 percent coming from states (including grants and gifts) and 45 percent from counties and cities, said Jimmy Henning, director of Kentucky Cooperative Extension and chairman of the Extension Committee on Organization and Policy, extension’s national governing board.

In most states, extension relies on the state legislature and county commissions for appropriations. In Kentucky, though, 108 of 120 counties have approved a designated extension tax. Almost all the revenue stays in the counties, Henning said.

“It’s a referendum on whether people value extension,” Henning said. “Without it, we would be half of where we are. We’d be back in the basements of courthouses” instead of in buildings that serve as community hubs, he said.

Many states also go after competitive federal grants and enter into partnerships with nonprofits and corporations. Texas, which lost 18 percent of state extension funding and 115 positions between 2009 and 2011, recently hired its first employee with shared funding from the Scott & White Healthcare company.

“Extension, as it looks to the next 100 years, has to find ways to make up the reductions in state and county funding,” said Douglas Steele, director of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.

As grants become more common, however, some worry about the strings attached to outside funding.

“There’s a greater fear that the search for money may lead to funders who don’t share the mission of extension,” Henning said. “This is a serious issue. Foundations are not by definition as concerned about the community” as extension is.

‘Their Own Little Fiefdom’

Some critics, such as Chuck Caudill Jr. in Beattyville, Kentucky, say local extension money in eastern Kentucky would be better spent on economic development than on buildings.

“For nearly 100 years, the University of Kentucky Extension Service has annually taken hundreds of thousands in local property taxes from every county, set up district and local commissions, built countless buildings and provided programs on youth, family science, community and economic development. Yet Eastern Kentucky remains poverty-ridden, low achieving and very unhealthy,” Caudill wrote in April in an opinion article in the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Counties are allowed to run extension offices “like their own little fiefdom,” with too little oversight from the universities, he said in an interview.

Caudill said he applied for a county extension job, but the position was eliminated.  He is running in the fall election as an independent for Lee County judge-executive, the fiscal officer who administers the extension and other special taxes.

“Extension is a great idea, a fabulous idea,” Caudill said. “But local politics have gotten so they trump the mission.”

In New Hampshire, residents were initially skeptical about extension’s reorganization. But in time, people came around.

“I have not heard any widespread or in-depth complaints,” said Lisa Townson, assistant director of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension. “People say programs are more focused and better quality,” although, she conceded, “It’s a challenge letting people know what we are doing.”

Opinions presented on the Extension Reconsidered blog belong to the authors. Contact Jen Jensen (jkj37[at]cornell.edu) to contribute, or comment here to share your thoughts. Follow @extrecon on Twitter for blog updates or read more about the Extension Reconsidered initiative at our website.

Acting with Intent: Citizen U. and Civic Ensemble at the NY State Fair

The Extension Reconsidered blog features posts from guest contributors who care about Cooperative Extension, the land-grant mission, community arts and humanities, civic engagement, and other issues related to the Extension Reconsidered initiative. This post originally appeared on the New York team’s Extension Reconsidered website and is published with permission here. It has been lightly edited for a non-NY audience.

By Paul Treadwell, distance learning advisor for Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) and member of CCE Extension Reconsidered team

One element of the Extension Reconsidered project here in New York State is focused on re-claiming theater as a tool for extension. There is a history of theater in extension work that has faded from recent memory. We are hoping that our collaboration with Civic Ensemble will reveal the value of theater as a method for presenting issues in a way that fosters dialog and deliberation. One of the major elements of our collaboration will be the creation of a new theater piece exploring the major themes and issues that have surfaced as the result of our Extension Reconsidered activities. This currently unnamed piece will premier at our capstone event on October 8, 2014.

Citizen U and Civic Ensemble performers at the New York State Fair. Photo courtesy of www.extrecon.cce.cornell.edu.

Citizen U and Civic Ensemble performers at the New York State Fair. Photo courtesy of www.extrecon.cce.cornell.edu.

Being creative and collaborative traveling companions, Civic Ensemble members have participated in a number of brainstorming sessions with us during the past few months. During one of these sessions a vague and tentative plan was developed to ‘do something’ with 4-H at the New York State Fair in August. The initial ‘something’ was a vision of extreme beauty and perfection, but — like many visions — reality sets in and you move from blue sky aspirations to practical application.

Rubber, meet road.

In this case, what evolved was a one and a half day workshop with four youth from the Citizen U. project of Broome county culminating in a performance in the Youth building at the fair. Working with the youth were Godfrey Simmons, artistic director of Civic Ensemble and Ryan Travis, actor and instructor at Syracuse University. The youth – Embroidery, Nosa, Macalah and Desiree – were taken through the process of creating and staging a performance that built on the 4-H theme for the State Fair of “The power of Youth”.  The day and a half of workshop included the full gamut of theater arts including script writing, acting, directing and performing.

Using “The Power of Youth” as a thematic frame, Embroidery, Nosa, Macalah and Desiree worked with Godfrey and Ryan to develop a piece that was rooted in the lived experience of the youth, and also spoken in the voice of the youth. The subject, language and staging of the piece was facilitated by Godfrey and Ryan but was wholly determined by the interests and desires of the youth.  The resulting piece, titled “The Power of You” was premiered on the main stage of the Youth building on Wednesday August 27. (You can view video of performance below or at Youtube.)

Agree, disagree or…

During the workshop process the youth engaged in an exercise called ‘agree, disagree, not sure’ (variations of this activity include Spectrogram and Four Corners). This activity uses a statement, or series of statements, and (not surprisingly) three signs labeled “Agree”, “Disagree” and “Not Sure”. The statement is read aloud and then participants move to the location denoted by the sign that best indicates their feeling about the statement. Then a discussion ensues with participants explaining why they feel as they do. This process can lead to some sorting of participants if, during the ensuing discussion, points are made that cause them to re-consider their position.


Workshopping in preparation for “The Power of You” performance. Photo courtesy of www.extrecon.cce.cornell.edu.

After the performance on Wednesday the youth/actors engaged with the audience using the “agree, disagree” activity. And, while the environment was not ideal (noisy, a lot of traffic passing by) a fairly animated discussion took place. The youth moderated, evoked responses and actively listened, while audience members engaged in dialog.

There is, of course, a lot more that happened during the day and a half of work. And there will be some follow up performances of the piece: the first at the Broome county Extension Reconsidered event on September 12 and then again at our capstone events on the Cornell campus on October 8. We’ll be sure to document those performances on the CCE Extension Reconsidered site as well.

A future vision for technology in Extension

by John Shutske, Interim Provost and Vice Chancellor, UW-Extension

The Extension Reconsidered blog features posts from guest contributors who care about Cooperative Extension, the land-grant mission, community arts and humanities, civic engagement, and other issues related to the Extension Reconsidered initiative.

Earlier this summer, I had an opportunity to share some thoughts at the annual meetings of two different professional groups on a future vision for Extension with a focus on the role of technology and how it will likely impact the future work of all in Cooperative Extension.  I felt empowered doing this having written a similar piece in 1997 as part of a technology “visioning” group with Minnesota Extension, knowing that at least a few of my predictions at that time eventually came to fruition a decade or more later.

I have divided this essay into three parts. First, I will briefly talk about a new employee in Extension, “Natalie” who will join us in 10 years with a new and different set of skills, expectations, and experiences, particularly in comparison to when I entered Extension 29 years ago as a “baby boomer” including those connected to technology. Second will be a discussion of several enabling and sometimes disruptive technologies that will re-cast much of the work done in Extension in the year 2024.  And finally, I share my thoughts on how we move toward a future focused on this 2024 vision, starting today!

Part I – Natalie, our Millennial Generation Extension colleague in 2024

Imagine the world of “Natalie,” who is now a 20-year old, entering her third year as an undergraduate biology student at a U.S. land-grant university. Now let’s put ourselves in August of 2024, ten years from today. We will hire Natalie to work with us as an Extension Educator in 2024.  Natalie will start with us in UW-Extension after having already had a couple of interesting “careers” working on issues connected to biology and the environment.

Natalie will turn 30 in 2024, and like many in the millennial generation, will have several meaningful careers and multiple jobs during her working years.  She will enter a position in Extension having grown up as a “digital native,” with her use of technology having been fully integrated into her life from an early age.  Natalie will have expectations of an Extension role that’s fast-moving and flexible to allow professionals to create, grow, and explore new ideas and relationships while blurring the lines between job, home, family, friends, travel, and fun.  As an Extension employee, Natalie will want a reasonably well-paying positon, but it must be meaningful and rewarding with opportunities to work collaboratively as a team member or leader.  It is likely that many like Natalie will be confident – and they will not be afraid to challenge the status quo of their work world if it is simply based on tradition and history. Many sources are available on the unique characteristics of the millennial generation including Generations at Work by Zemke, Raines, and Filipczak.

As you will see later in my final thoughts in this essay, Natalie’s position will be partially-funded through a carefully-crafted public-private partnership that provides the necessary dollars to support her work while Natalie works within her educator role maintaining a high degree of objectivity and integrity.

Oneida County's first agent, E.L. Luther with a new technology of the time. Photo courtesy of UW-Extension, Cooperative Extension.

Oneida County’s first agent, E.L. Luther with a new technology of the time. Photo courtesy of UW-Extension, Cooperative Extension.

Natalie’s world in 2024 will be greatly influenced by technology.  One hundred years ago, Wisconsin’s first Extension Agent, E.L. Luther used the technology of a state-of-the-art motorcycle to rapidly travel the dirt roads of rural Oneida County to explore and build relationships.  Similarly, Natalie’s use of digital technology will strongly support her efforts to develop, nurture, and maximize the value of important relationships with individuals within communities, families, and businesses – the hallmark of Extension.

Part II – Technologies that will Shape the Work of Extension in 2024

Here are six technologies that will continue to develop, evolve, and truly change the game between 2014 and the start of Natalie’s work with us in Extension in ten years.  Some might call these technologies “disruptors.” Some of them are, but I prefer to think of them as technologies which will enable and empower our Extension colleagues in the future and make their work more impactful and rewarding for all involved!

Mobile.  As we are now just beginning to see, mobile technology (smart phones, tablets, wearable communication devices, etc.) will dominate much of our communication and information world in 2024.  Think of how a modern smart phone in 2014 has more computing power than the very most sophisticated computers used in the Apollo space program at the time we landed people on the moon 45 years ago (by several orders of magnitude).  Now, we can access nearly all information ever created and recorded in the last several hundred years with a couple clicks on a screen.  What will tomorrow’s mobile tech look like?

Mobile devices likely will have the potential to be even smaller with greater and greater power.  But, further miniaturization will be constrained by human vision limitations and the need for a readable screen.  Further advances in battery power will allow devices to last for days or weeks rather than hours.  Surfaces in your vehicle, office, or home will also be set up to charge your device.  You won’t have to plug it in – you’ll just need to set it down in the right spot.

Because of increased power and battery capacity, a small smart phone will also serve as a projector.  Not only will it project presentations, but any smooth vertical surface will be able to be transformed into an HD monitor.  If we’re really ambitious in our thinking, we won’t need a surface but rather an open space into which we will project a fully three-dimensional holographic image.  Likewise, your smart device’s projection capabilities will be able to transform any horizontal surface into a virtual keyboard and touch pad for data entry.  And, by 2024, voice recognition and control will be almost perfected.  Your smart phone will also have a fully visual interface such as today’s prototype wearable “Google Glass” system. But for daily work, wearables will likely only be used as input, visualization, or data collection devices.  The brain of Natalie’s mobile future will still be her smart phone.

Internet-Enabled “Face-to-Face” Communication. We’re all aware that interpersonal relationships have always been a key to Extension’s historical and current success.  But, travel associated with always doing face-to-face is expensive (including the time and opportunity costs). Heavy travel schedules also may not be nearly as accepted by our 2024 workforce as has been the case for the past many decades. Imbalances in time spent traveling will be a significant factor associated with job satisfaction and retention.

New developments will further enable highly effective “distance” communication and education in which little will be lost in terms of our communication.  New systems like Cisco’s Tele-Presence system will be increasingly pervasive within educational settings and eventually highly affordable.  In many cases currently, Extension staff are now beginning to save thousands each year in travel costs and time using inexpensive, off-the-shelf hardware and software.  Many communication platforms are now free or available at minimal cost (like Google Hangouts and Skype).  Technology in 2024 will provide amazingly crisp visuals and low latency (lag), high quality voice and sound.  In addition, interacting with others through the use of three-dimensional holograms will begin to be commonplace.

In addition to sitting and interacting with a constituent or colleague on a monitor, screen, or hologram, Natalie will see significant advancement in the use of wearable virtual reality (VR) displays (sound and video).  In recent months, a VR system called “Oculus Rift” has been released along with a software developer’s kit that encourage individual inventors and entrepreneurs to develop highly customized applications of this amazing technology.  In addition to using it for one-on-one “distance” interaction with other people, virtual reality will be used by Natalie to do educational demonstrations, and offer people other types of highly complex three-dimensional immersion experiences.

Driverless Vehicles (and the Collaborative Economy). This enabling technology is a two-for-one.  By 2024, Natalie will not need to own a car.  And, she will not necessarily even know how to drive (she may not want to!).  Driverless vehicles on the highway will become commonplace.  We see companies like Google and even the big U.S. auto manufacturers investing heavily in the technologies that will support fully autonomous vehicles. The movement toward driverless automobiles has been slow and evolutionary starting with devices like cruise control, forward and side-looking sensors and sophisticated driver-information systems for the operator.

Google's driverless car on a test course. Photo courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/jurvetson/5499949739/.

Google’s driverless car on a test course. Photo courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/jurvetson/5499949739/.

Development in these vehicles will accelerate in the coming years as we see further advancement in sensors, data transmission speeds, and computing power (as well as public and private investment). The limiting factor of driverless vehicle adoption may not be the technology, but instead the consistency of smart public policy.  Since Natalie’s schedule will be stored on her smart phone and linked to the “cloud,” she will have the option of a vehicle showing up at her doorstep at the time she needs to leave to occasionally travel out in the state for an Extension event, for fun, or for a combination of the two.

But, Natalie will not need to own the car, because she will subscribe to a service where vehicles are part of a shared resource.  Costs will be much more in line with the true value associated with transportation, because technology will enable a greater degree of vehicle usage efficiency.  Most people’s cars now are actually “in use” for less than 10% of any given day, and future services will increase utilization efficiency by a significant percentage.  In addition, Natalie will have the option to stay overnight in less costly shared space, perhaps enabled through a collaborative-economy based service like AirBNB. When Natalie does travel, because she’s in a comfortable space being driven to her location, she will be able to spend that time learning, working, communicating, or even having fun.

Besides benefiting from a driverless, autonomous vehicle, depending on Natalie’s Extension program interests, she might need to know a little something about the use of automated, autonomous systems such as aerial “drones,” robots, and driverless industrial equipment (tractors, construction machines, etc).  If Natalie is an Agricultural Extension Educator, she may have a small collection of ‘drones’ located in key locations in her territory that she can remotely send out each morning to shoot video providing just-in-time information on crop conditions, pest control issues, and seasonal progress.  Or, she might have a dashboard on her smart phone that aggregates all milk production data coming off of robotic milking machines from the few dozen dairy farms in her region. Technology will allow her to remotely monitor how the current hot, dry weather is impacting local production and she can then make recommendations to farmers and others in the supply chain.

The Internet of Things (or Internet of Everything). Within ten years, we will see amazing use and ubiquity of sensors embedded in every machine, appliance, and component, not to mention inside people, animals, and environmental “systems.”  As Wall Street technical guru and futurist Esther Dyson has said, “Soon we will salt the oceans, the land and the sky with uncounted numbers of sensors invisible to the eye but visible to one another.”  These sensors will be networked, and the data that they generate will be accessible via the Internet.

In terms of Natalie’s future work as an Extension worker with interests and education in biology, imagine if we had sensors embedded in every dairy cow or beef animal in the country; every 100th ash or oak tree in the Midwest; every musky or loon in or on the nearby lake; every warm-blooded pet; or, every person?

The data generated in our new world will likely change the nature of traditional research.  The possibilities to learn about and understand our world will be endless.  But, it also has the potential to be wildly overwhelming!  And, it obviously raises all kinds of questions about data privacy, access, appropriate use, security, and other potential downsides.

Big Data. The Internet of Everything will further accelerate the pace of technology and information change. It will continue to generate unimaginable mountains of data.  Information in the book “The Human Face of Big Data” is both inspiring and daunting:

  • Today, a street vendor in Mumbai can access more information, statistics, academic papers, price trends, and futures markets than a U.S. president could only a few decades ago…
  • In 15 minutes, 20 petabytes new data generated by the human race…3X the amount in the Library of Congress. (20,000 Terabytes or 2 X107 Gigabytes)
  • From the dawn of civilization until 2003, humankind generated 5 exabytes of data (1018 bytes) – Now, we produce 5 exabytes EVERY TWO DAYS and the pace is accelerating.

For Extension, the Internet of Everything and Big Data will be a game-changer.  I will be bold and say that applied agricultural, biological, and environmental research “projects” using old-style approaches and methods will be largely a thing of the past within a little more than a decade.  If you are Natalie or one of her professors (perhaps an Extension Specialist?) in 2014, and want to work on an animal science project involving nutrition or reproduction of sheep, or dairy cows, or pigs, what do we do now? A professor gets a $500,000 USDA grant. She works with the staff at the university research farm. The faculty member buys 60 animals or whatever the project budget will allow, and divides them into groups. She would then conduct the experiment, and harvest the results.  It’s an expensive model and one that may not be able to be accommodated and sustained by publicly-funded resources in the future.

Based on the ubiquity of sensors and networked data, I believe we will see a greater focus on-farm or “in-the-plant” research that involves partnerships with people and business entities in the private sector. The opportunities to access data connected to independent and dependent variables as well as information about all surrounding conditions and environmental and statistical confounders will be limitless. This will open up countless citizen science and youth engagement opportunities as we now see with things like water quality, wildlife, and weather monitoring by interested and eager public citizens.  We will see this shift in areas outside of agriculture and environmental sciences as well.

These trends will also raise important data and research quality issues.  The role of Natalie in 2024 will shift away from “doing” lots of research toward data analysis and interpretation and synthesis of new knowledge and models for understanding the world around us.  Or, Natalie may play a crucial role working with her constituents on issues of science literacy and appreciation using the exciting science that surrounds us.

People with strong skills will be paid a premium if they know how to effectively use data to formulate, inform, and communicate recommendations that lead to sound decisions.  People in Extension who figure this out quickly will have very bright career opportunities.  Those who do not will need to work in other sectors.  Technical skills will certainly be important.  But communication skills and an ability to interact with people will also be crucial!

Social Media.  For private companies, social media and the effective adoption of early platforms like Twitter and Facebook has already become a game changer.  Unfortunately, some in Extension have viewed the social media revolution only as a passing fad.

Some do not see the value in a 140-character “tweet” and having followers whether on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.  What they may fail to recognize is that social media, if done in smart ways, will allow Natalie to connect in a direct, concise, and immediate way to a few hundred or thousands of the most influential thought leaders in her field, whether they are other scientists, educators, industry, leaders, consultants, or elected officials!

The value of a tool like Twitter is not the 140 characters themselves – a Tweet or Facebook post, when properly used, can be a precise and highly-trusted pointer to a tiny, but critical information needle in an overwhelming global data haystack.  And, if you are connecting that needle to even 100 of most influential people in your programmatic world, the impact can grow exponentially and have massive impact. If you’re skeptical, consider the impact that these tools have had on major global events and civil revolutions in many parts of the world in the last five years.

I believe that we are only in the early stages of social media development and application.  Tools like Twitter and Facebook will continue to evolve. We will see new applications and platforms that are hard to imagine. There will be Twitter-like platforms that will have behind-the-scenes analysis algorithms that quickly identify and communicate trends and help sift good from bad data and information.  Not all of the “tweets” and other information being analyzed will be manually entered by people.  Imagine every crop field “tweeting” about current soil moisture conditions, ambient sunlight levels, temperature, and relative humidity.  Imagine getting a text message every time that musky that you caught last summer gets re-caught by other catch-and-release fisherman on the nearby lake (from the fish)!

For individual educators like Natalie, social media tools such as trust-ratings, “likes,” followers, favorites, retweets, and recommendations will be a part of her academic professional portfolio much the same way that peer-reviewed journal articles are used as a measure of credibility in today’s world.  This will affect her science-based reputation and her work as an educator.  Accountability measures for Extension education specialists and researchers will be much more public.  We have already seen this sort of application for university classroom teachers where social media tools like “Rate My Professors” are used to rate faculty on the quality of their instruction and communication.  These tools now have the potential to influence individual course enrollment numbers and tuition revenue for academic departments and colleges.

Part III – Where Do We go From Here?

Let’s step back to 2014.  Natalie’s got some time to learn and finish her degree this school year and next.  In Extension, we have some time too, but the clock is ticking rapidly!  Outlined in the last section were a few of the dozens of tech-based enablers and disruptors that will continue to evolve and change our world in the coming decade.  Those described in Part II are simply the ones I’ve thought the most about and can personally foresee rapidly coming onto the scene and having a big impact on Extension’s work.  Some already are.  Or, perhaps should be.

As a final thought, as I presented this summer, lots of people agreed with the majority of my comments and analysis.  A few did not.  But, the common question was, “Yeah?  What can we do now?  If we don’t go there proactively, we’re going to be left in the dust.”  Here are a few concluding ideas.

First, universities and Extension cannot do ‘this’ alone.  But, nether can the private sector. If we try and go it alone, we will likely fall short, largely because of the continued shrinkage of public sector dollars that feed our education and research systems in the U.S. We need the private sector – but they need us too, both in terms of resources as well as technical knowledge, talent, and expertise. So, new partnership models are needed including those which can enable us to share resources, positions, and funding streams in ways that are consistent and fully aligned with Extension’s values.  This, of course, makes Extension professionals and leaders tremendously nervous. Rightly so.

Our brand has always been built on being objective and unbiased.  But, the growth, adoption, and cost of these technologies and being able to pay people like Natalie a competitive salary will leave us no choice.  As we’ve seen these last 30 years, there has been little or no growth in public-sector funding for research or for Extension educational work. When you factor together state plus federal funding, the growth has been very much in the negative direction nearly everywhere in the U.S.

Other funds will be needed to maintain the infrastructure within universities (such as classrooms, labs, and outdoor science facilities). Higher education leaders will need to be smart about the level of physical infrastructure actually needed in this new world. We MUST find ways to partner while also being hyper-vigilant about protecting our unique position and brand.  We also must think carefully about how the technologies cited in this essay can BOTH enhance and improve our impact while also helping to control or cut the costs of doing the work!

For the Natalie’s of our world and for future student who want to consider working in Extension, the marketplace for Extension professionals will be exciting. It will also be global.  We already see this with high quality candidates applying for and accepting both campus and locally-based Extension positions having come to us from other nations around the world.  In addition, the market for our knowledge and our ability to formulate sound decisions from an ocean of raw data will be global.  No longer will state or county boundaries confine the reach of Extension within a particular geographic domain. The move toward globalization needs much further discussion by Extension leaders nationwide!

Finally, despite all of the techy stuff described in this essay including mobile technology, automation, and commoditized data access, it is clear that we must continue to focus much of our basic education to include science, math, engineering, and technology skills.  For people like Natalie, the “tech” piece will not be a shocker, nor will it be as problematic for future generations as it has been for us Baby Boomers.  But, people like Natalie will find that but being able to effectively work, socialize, and communicate in the zone of knowledge, wisdom, and decisions will be very tough work.

But it will be exciting and highly rewarding.  Just like the work of today’s Extension workers is today in 2014, or can be!  The school year starts very soon for most of us.  Natalie is ready to roll up her sleeves and dig back in to prepare herself for the future.  Are we?

Opinions presented on the Extension Reconsidered blog belong to the authors. Contact Jen Jensen (jkj37[at]cornell.edu) to contribute, or comment here to share your thoughts. The author also encourages comments to shutske[at]wisc.edu. Follow @extrecon on Twitter for blog updates or read more about the Extension Reconsidered initiative at our website.