The bare winter fields, endless piney woods, leafless orchards, and hardwood bottoms pass in a blur under the grey winter skies. Each year, the lead-up to the growing season finds my colleagues and I in a truck along the backroads of Georgia for what will be the first of many days over a two-month stretch traveling to a series of small towns. We will speak to gatherings of farmers in seventeen different counties throughout southern Georgia. Along the way we will travel 1750 miles. Pasted together it would be a length of road long enough to drive from Georgia to Salt Lake City. We will spend a total of 36 hours on the road. At every stop, each of us will speak for 15-20 min. We will shake hands and have side conversations with those in attendance. We will answer and ask questions. We will consume large quantities of barbeque, fried chicken, green beans, and pecan pie.
In an age of Zoom meetings and video conferencing, this over-the-top effort for face-to-face gatherings may seem irrational and inefficient. In fact, it is, when viewed from a certain perspective. But the illogical bent of our travels goes far beyond the superficial purpose.
I moonlight as a farmer, but in my day job I work as an extension specialist for pecans and a professor of Horticulture at the University of Georgia. Most days I am at work in an orchard somewhere identifying problems and solutions for farmers or collecting data, or I am at my desk crunching numbers or writing. But this is the meeting season. It is a job that fits my nostalgic sensibilities. It is also an enigma to most people. I myself find it hard to believe sometimes that I have made a career of this job. I am part of a network of people throughout the state and indeed, throughout the nation, whose job it is to help farmers and the public at large. As ridiculous as it sounds, I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.
The seeds of the Extension service were planted in 1862 when President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, establishing the Land Grant College system. The law gave the states public lands, which were to be sold or used to generate funds for the establishment of colleges where the agricultural and mechanical arts would be taught. Many of these became the large public universities that today serve as the flagship schools of their respective states. In 1887, the Hatch Act provided federal funds to the states to establish agricultural experiment stations under the direction of these schools, where agricultural research would be conducted. In 1890, a number of historically black colleges and universities were added to the land grant mission.
By 1914, Congress recognized a need to extend the knowledge gained through the colleges and experiment stations to farmers and homemakers living far out into the rural countryside, people who did not have the time or resources to attend college or meetings at the experiment stations. As a result, the Smith-Lever Act was passed, establishing the Extension Service as a partnership between federal, state, and county governments. At the time, over 50% of Americans lived in rural areas and 30% of the workforce was related to agriculture. Soon, a local extension office was rooted in almost every county across the nation and became part of the fabric of local communities.
Though a noble idea, Extension has been used, as author Wendell Berry points out, as a blunt tool of the “get big or get out” policies of former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz. It was a policy that relied on globalism to be successful. As a result, the advent of the economy of scale destroyed countless local communities, and in many places Extension itself has suffered in this dismantling.
After 1960 the number of farms in the U.S. began a steep decline, largely due to the increased efficiency stemming from the very knowledge and mechanization the colleges and extension service provided and promoted. Today fewer than 2% of Americans farm for a living, and only 17% of the population live in rural areas. The political power of rural places has dwindled. Not surprisingly, Extension’s funding has diminished, and the county extension offices in many states have been closed or consolidated to serve specific regions of their respective states. As a result, Extension has lost some of its influence to the agribusiness industry.
Yet agriculture still touches all of our lives at some level, creating a need for the unbiased, research-driven focus of the extension service, and here in Georgia there remains an extension office in almost all 159 counties. In Georgia, at least, the value of locality and community is taken into serious account through its extension work.
People in my part of the world are still familiar with the county agent. But if you’ve lived on concrete all your life, your only exposure to a county agent may have been the bumbling Hank Kimball on an episode of Green Acres. Therefore, you may not know exactly what a county agricultural agent does. In short, they help people.
The county agent’s territory lies within a county or series of counties, where they are responsible for answering a broad range of questions from farmers, homeowners, government officials, and citizens from all walks of life. Through the 4-H program, they help and instruct hundreds of children within their communities. Most county agents today have master’s degrees and must develop a broad knowledge of topics as varied as the proper pH of a fish pond, the life cycle of the pepper weevil, the most suitable turfgrass for shaded lawns, how to determine when peanuts are ready to be dug from the earth, how to test a well for contamination, and how to rid a home of mold. They hold classes, workshops, field trials, and club meetings on all these topics and more to improve the lives of their neighbors.
The extension specialist’s responsibility is more focused on one or a handful of topics. They are to develop expertise in these narrow topics through applied research. Most hold PhDs in their field and work as professors in their respective universities. While some teach in the classroom, most teach in the field, at conferences, field days, and meetings like the county meeting. Fields of interest may be soil fertility, irrigation, plant disease, insect pests, weeds, precision agriculture, post-harvest physiology, or a combination of these within a certain crop, like pecans in my case, or a series of crops like vegetables, fruits, or row crops. Their territory usually encompasses the entire state. The specialist is responsible for training the agents within his or her discipline, answering the questions of agents and farmers, making visits to farms with the agents, and producing bulletins and trade magazine articles. Specialists also conduct research on the state experiment stations and in the fields of farmers. All of this research is geared toward solving the local problems farmers face in the field, and the results of this research are published in scientific journals.
Most extension people have a stunted financial ambition, heavily tempered by a desire for knowledge and a willingness to help people. We’re not trying to sell anything. We have no agenda other than sharing knowledge. The county production meeting is the backbone of this service. While I and my fellow extension specialists who study plant disease and insect pests travel from county to county to discuss pecans, we have counterparts who do the same for each of the major crops grown in Georgia. Our circuit is the farm equivalent of a concert tour on a much smaller scale.
County meetings form a Rockwellian scene that not many people today outside of a farming community would still recognize. Part of our audience consists of older, semi-retired farmers dressed in faded overalls and camouflage hats. These are the happiest of all who are gathered. Happy to get out and be around old friends, smiling, laughing, making jokes, sharing wisdom.
Increasingly, our audience is full of people in khakis and polo shirts or button-down work shirts with their name stitched above the pocket. They are the local business owners, mechanics, plumbers, electricians, bankers, pharmacists, doctors, and lawyers, who moonlight as farmers. It’s the new way of things and that’s actually ok. It is evidence that citizens of all kinds are caring for the land. This itself is the kind of localism we need.
The full-time farmers dressed in jeans, boots, T-shirts, and ball caps advertising herbicides, seed companies, or tractors gather in groups talking among themselves in hushed tones prior to the start of the meeting. Their arms and necks are darkened by the sun. There are white rings around their eyes formed by the outline of their sunglasses. Their faces appear cautious, skeptical, but friendly.
The meetings are held in auditoriums at the local extension offices, high schools, cattle show barns, government buildings, restaurants, convenience stores, and farm shops. Our PowerPoint presentations are cast onto old tablecloths hung on the walls of country diners, bare walls, and projection screens that descend from the roof with the flick of a switch or are carried in within ancient, clunky metal cases to be set up by hand.
We gather to eat meals buffet style. Baked chicken, fried chicken, ribs, pork chops, or barbeque sandwiches are the common fare along with the obligatory beans, peas, greens, mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, and rolls. In Irwinville, Georgia we have a breakfast meeting at Morehead’s Country Store and dine on eggs, grits, and bacon. In Albany we eat T-bone steaks at the fairgrounds. In Claxton we top off the meal with Harry’s BBQ, featuring the famous local dessert called “chewy cake,” a brownie chock-full of vanilla and brown sugar instead of chocolate.
Those of us on the program are under no delusion that the crowd has gathered to hear us speak. It is a time of fellowship more than anything, a time to catch up with friends. There is talk of last year’s crop, of weather, of football, of the past hunting season, and of course, the price of crops. Following the meal, after everyone has become lethargic and eyelids have grown heavy, we give our formal presentations on insect and disease control, fertility, irrigation, cultivars, and market forces based on the latest events and research. We look out upon faces that range from the intensely interested to those whose eyelids have won the battle or those who stare at their phones. Some people take notes. These are usually the ones who are new to the game. Some people get up and leave as soon as the meal is done and they have their pesticide recertification credit forms filled out. Some come up and ask questions afterward, lingering into the afternoon.
There are those who will say the old county meetings are outdated. They may be right. But they will say the same about the rural places in which the work is done. We need these things that draw us into community. If only to keep some sanity and a connection to the real world. If only, in some small, seemingly insignificant way, to keep us human. The county meetings are laced with laughter, friendship, teamwork, debate, and discussion. Maintaining these things is worth the miles, and it is worth the inefficiency that is calculated on the computer screens.
Besides, there are some things that just don’t translate well over Zoom. Farmers often assess the validity of agricultural practices by their own experiential learning or that of their neighbors. There is nothing wrong with this as such experience often speaks to the legitimacy of the value gained by consideration of local conditions. But unbiased science is a way of thinking designed to get at the facts and rule out other explanations. It has value itself and, applied appropriately, can help weed through the cloudy world of risk and reward. A good extension person can thread this needle and translate the science in a way easily understood by all. This means speaking the language of the audience.
I know of no finer example of this and the value for unbiased science than a story I heard about a now retired plant pathologist who finished his short speech at a county meeting. After he finished, a member of the crowd asked a question about the latest snake-oil potion being thrust upon farmers by crafty chemical salesmen.
Another farmer stood up and proclaimed, “I used it on my crop last year, and I can tell you it increased my yield by several hundred pounds.”
The pathologist asked, “Did you have a control?” meaning a section of the field set aside for comparison, which had not been sprayed with the snake oil.
“No-sir-ee. I put it on the whole place,” exclaimed the farmer proudly.
“Well,” said the pathologist, “if I didn’t have a control, I could drop my pants and moon the sun and tell you that worked too.”
Over the years and the thousands of miles traveled, the many venues scattered throughout the south Georgia pines and fields, I have come to know the faces and people in the audience. I now know several generations of some of these families. Some became good friends. Other times I have seen long-forgotten and once-familiar faces from the past looking out from those folding metal chairs. I return each year to my old hometown to speak at the county pecan meeting. There I see people who knew my parents and grandparents. I have seen my third-grade teacher sitting in the audience beside her husband. I have sat across the table from my high school football coach at the county meeting and caught up over a plate of barbeque. The old saying is that a prophet is not without honor except in his own country, and I must admit that it feels strange to attempt to dispense advice to people you’ve known most of your life, but there is also a sense of completing the circle in such situations.
Each of us at these meetings, the farmers, the homeowners, the retired school teachers, the businessmen, doctors, lawyers, county agents, and extension specialists, friends, and strangers, are connected by an interest in what grows from the earth and how we grow it. Each is trying to do so responsibly and profitably. We are trying to solve the puzzle presented years ago by Aldo Leopold when he wrote, “Our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do. They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides, but they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history, to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.”
Improvements in agriculture are the basis of human civilization because they involve our most basic relationship with the world we live from. Sometimes these improvements come through technology and research. Sometimes they come from listening to farmers and gleaning important observations from their knowledge of place. The county meeting is where technology and tradition merge into a single conversation. They merge not so much in the presentations we give. Rather, they merge in the buffet line, in the warm handshakes, the friendly smiles, the open mind, the listening ear, the brightness in the eye, the casual conversation, the mutual words of appreciation. They merge in community.