Are You Aspiring Towards A Career in Extension?
If your heart is set on working in the public sector, this article is not for you. Please move on.
However, if you are finding public options too limited, you may want to explore opportunities that allow more time for your family, provide a more flexible work schedule, or allow you more choices about who you partner with, and who you serve. If you are willing to take the risks involved in a full or part time private enterprise, please consider the following discussion, which reveals my personal journey from a degree in agricultural and extension education, to a career in biotech research that revealed not only the benefits, but also the flaws inherent in public extension networks. These insights led me to explore private sector options, and to develop a business that combines elements of extension education, agricultural leadership development, and modern science with the the potential to build a service-based organization that makes good soil health and good human nutrition widely accessible.
If your degree is not opening the doors you anticipated, and your work is costing more than you care to give, I invite you to connect with me and discuss the ways you might fit within our growing “extension network.”
Early Roots in Agricultural Extension
My first career aspirations were in agricultural extension. I dreamed of attending Cornell, because I wanted that Ivy league education. I worked hard in high school to make the grade, and I did. But finances were a problem, so when I was offered a better scholarship to New Mexico State University, close to home, I accepted. This was actually a good twist of fate, for many reasons. First, I studied extension under Dr. Gene Ross, who fully embraced both the history and the purpose of agricultural extension. He promoted a work ethic that centered, not on the institutions, but on the people they serve, making it clear that the agent who sat at his desk pushing paper was not doing his/her job. This attitude of putting the public above the administration is an ethic that was as rare in his day as it is now. But it makes sense. Afterall, who pays for extension? The public! Dr. Ross also made it clear that extension was a two-way process. The scientist had as much to learn from the farmer as the farmer had to learn from the scientist. Listening skills and dialog were essential, and the research should be guided by community needs. These perspectives guided my understanding of what extension was about.
A second advantage of studying at New Mexico State University was that the smaller campus allowed me to work
within a tight enough community that I could step with ease into work and research opportunities on campus, where I could be recognized for efforts that would have likely gone unnoticed at Cornell. This was important on a personal level. I grew up in a family that did not support higher education, and did not welcome me home once I had my degree. But at New Mexico State thirty years ago, department faculty knew their students by name, and new freshmen quickly felt at home. I don’t think this feeling that I belonged would have emerged at Cornell.
When I began working in plant science laboratories, I found a new passion: biotech. I actually enjoyed genetics, chemistry, and all those classes other students hated. This love of the sciences diverted my career path. I never went to work for cooperative extension. But the foundation laid in my undergraduate studies continues to influence my career path today.
What is Extension, Anyway?
Those of us who grew up surrounded by 4-H programs and County Extension Agents may be surprised to discover that professionals in the urban world often don’t know the service exists. I’ll encourage those readers who are asking, “What is Extension?” to check out the NMSU Agricultural and Extension Education Program, and the NMSU Cooperative Extension Service. Similar services are provided through Land Grant Universities throughout the country. While urban Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers may best relate to the agricultural extension role played by Hank Kimball on the sitcom, Green Acres, most extension agents inspire more confidence in new ideas than Hank did.
On the other hand (yes, Hank often said that….), the sad truth that may have inspired Hank Kimball’s scatterbrained personality is that county agents are often assigned more duties than their budgets truly support. We know that there are limits to how effectively one can multitask. Yet then, as now, agents were expected to multi-task more than a an air traffic controller at O’Hare International Airport. Then, as now, agents faced continuous threats of budget cuts. Then, as now, agents were expected to transfer new knowledge and expertise from the most cutting edge research of the most non-communicative university scientists, to some of the most “change-resistant” communities–farmers and ranchers who are quick to recognize that the scientists “solutions” rarely account for all the variables they deal with on their land, in their production system. A well coordinated extension team can rise above the noise and provide outstanding information and service to their community. Throw in enough bad supervisors, heated politics, or unreasonable budget cuts, and a degree of “scatterbrained” performance is inevitable.
In an ideal situation, the role of extension, to assist in community and economic development by providing education that assists families at the local scale, is commendable. Extension education spans leadership development, nutrition, agriculture, environment, natural resource management, and more.
Experience is the Best Teacher
While I always loved the concept of extension-working with growers and staying in tune with the latest in agricultural research-I quickly recognized that the politics and funding of extension at the time made the future of extension seem sketchy. I didn’t meet a lot of happy agents. Nor did I meet happy families of agents. The agents I knew worked really long hours and rarely spent time at home. Knowing that one day I wanted a family, I chose not to start my career in extension. Instead, I returned to graduate school and began a career in research.
Multiple peer reviewed publications, and numerous symposia later, I understood what too many before me have recognized: We already have answers to sustainable agriculture, better nutrition, natural resource conservation, food security, energy, and all the other significant problems research is funded to address. Those answers are not being implemented. And they are not implemented because they threaten the monopolies that influence so much of our politics. Corruption is rampant in every political process, and institutional science, as we know it today, is a political process.
As this reality sunk in, I began to see the government funded research I had been pursuing throughout my career through a different lens. I began to recognize that every grant funded through a federal agency has been carefully crafted and groomed to solicit talent and efforts that address the needs of a few monopolies over and above the needs of the public. When we can reduce the corruption that currently exists, scientific research may have public benefit. But today, devoting pubic funds to new technology development only exacerbates the inequality, land degradation, food insecurity, and the chronic disease that is crippling our economy. A great example of this involves cancer research. We spend billions annually. Yet according to the National Cancer Institute, 1.7 million new cases will be diagnosed with cancer each year. Meanwhile, efforts to combat the environmental exposures, nutritional deficiencies, and other factors that contribute to cancer in the first place are inhibited by political barriers. In agriculture, we knew in the 80’s that the best way to keep family farms and rural communities viable was to diversify operations and sell more directly to end consumers. Yet since that time, family farms that sell to local grocers and farmers markets have been consumed by produce brokers that sell to distant megamarkets. It was this realization that awakened me to the untapped value of robust, local scale extension.
See, in the early days of extension, the goal was to serve as a middle agent between the scientist and the farmer or the home maker. The agent was supposed to communicate scientific findings to farm families, but the agent was also supposed to make the family’s needs clear to the scientist. In this way, the scientists could address questions that were relevant to rural communities at local scales.
No doubt, this bidirectional communication does occur today. But it occurs at a much lower intensity than the communication between universities, politicians, and corporate donors in Washington D.C., and in the end, it is these latter conversations that most influence the agent’s jobs. When we look at the cost society carries as a result of this imbalance (lost farmland, declining nutrition, lost natural resources, and scarcity of local leadership….) it becomes obvious that there is a clear need for services that develop and empower local communities to make agriculture sustainable, and good nutrition accessible. This need is not being met by extension and other government agencies with any great success.
How Would Privatization Benefit the Extension Process?
Well first of all, it must be recognized that services provided through extension services tied to land grant colleges are already being provided on a regular basis through the private and non profit sectors. For example, many churches, business training groups, and community organizations offer leadership training. Nutritionists at wellness centers teach new mothers how to feed children properly. Garden centers teach courses on growing plants, and irrigation supply businesses teach growers how to install drip systems. Crop consultants work with growers on the ground to ensure their production runs smoothly. Good businesses excel at providing these services. As the app market is helping growers pinpoint every need their crops or livestock may have, and fitness buffs wear digital technology that monitors their health, it can be argued that even information services are being provided more efficiently by industry than by government.
But very few private agencies tie the string of services and training surrounding local food community development together as holistically as traditional extension services do.
How is End-O-Fite Enterprises LLC like an Extension Service?
When we began End-O-Fite Enterprises LLC, I argued strongly that we needed to work in a manner that would increase access to safe, nutritious food-the foundation of every economy. The way we planned to do that was to:
- restore microbial diversity to the soil where we grow our crops, the food we consume as part of our diets, and the gi tracts where we extract nutrients from that food.
- promote entrepreneurship at very small scales, so that local, diversified farms that are using good practices can sell their products to restaurants and corner stores that do not rely on national distribution chains. These national distribution chains rely on packaging systems subject to regulations that require processing which removes nutrients and beneficial microbes from our food.
We recognized that by working outside of government agencies, we would be free to transfer new information, not only from my own research in microbiome dynamics, but research from many others, that was relevant to land and health restoration. We felt that this information was too often downplayed by government agencies, simply because much of what is known about ecosystem function is disruptive to the function of those megacorporations that governments serve. We could bypass these politics by working more closely with those clients we chose to serve.
As we began presenting our ideas, we discovered the demand for training and support quickly exceeded what we could provide directly. Fortunately, we were able to tap into tools that make some of our outreach more manageable. To provide virtual training, we began teaching online classes through an online platform. This affiliation allows us to share ideas with the global community at affordable pricing, while giving us time to work individually with those clients who are ready to move beyond basic concepts to implement lasting change.
We were also able to tap into an international network of nutritional experts who assist us with bringing relevant nutritional information to clients. Through our nutrition networks, we can connect people, not only to a wide array of plant and mineral based supplements, but also to nutritionists, naturopathic doctors, pharmacists, medical doctors, registered nurses, nurse practitioners, and even veterinarians who recognize the value of mineral nutrients that support the health of entire living systems. We even found MBA’s and business leaders who guide our clients in building local farms and other businesses, either within or beyond our network.
So today, I find myself devoted to efforts that are not unlike those I would be engaged in if I worked for the extension service. I am building demonstrations, testing arid land agricultural principles, teaching adults locally and around the world, and creating connections that build local communities. Best of all, I am free of the political process, the work place pecking orders, and the uncertain cycle of government funding. No doubt, other stressors emerge from time to time, but I can address these with greater flexibility than I could hope to address them from within an institution.
How Does End-O-Fite Enterprises LLC Differ From an Extension Service?
First and foremost, we are small and independent. That means two things. On one hand, we don’t take money from the government, so we are free to teach what our observations and experience holds to be true. On the other hand, we don’t have the pockets of hundreds of millions of taxpayers to dip into, so we have to charge for some of our services. Since the small farms we see the most need to support are also the least likely to be able to pay consulting contracts, we have explored alternate income streams. These include income from our online learning, our soil testing, and from commissions we earn as affiliates of nutrition products, and other online stores. Affiliate based marketing models allow us to provide nutritional supplements, and other products and services that support our efforts to take ownership of our personal economy. Unexpected benefits of these affiliations include our ability to reach a global audience working at local scales, the ability to tap into the wisdom of a global network, and the ability to connect small local farms to health conscious consumers who care how their food is grown and distributed.
Opportunities for Extension and other Educators
As our own network expands, we welcome full or part time partners who are focused on expanding the growth of local food systems. We welcome partners with sincere interests in sustainable agriculture, microbiome restoration, human nutrition, local food, and/or creating supplemental income. Our experience has been that teams work best when they share a common vision. If you have interests in working full or part time to restore local food systems, please drop us a note and let us know how best to connect with you.