The following is a summary of a talk given by Dr. Will D. Carpenter to the National Association of County Agents in 2000. It is still relevant today.
The Vital Role of County Agents in Agriculture
As the son of H.A. Carpenter, County and District Agent in the Mississippi Delta for 37 years, I learned early on the importance of these men and women to the agricultural communities they serve. County Agents in 1925 had many problems to solve, but not nearly so much as do the agents of today.
Most people today are several generations removed from agriculture, and thus have little idea of the origin of their food, and with the advent of social media, there is much misinformation surrounding that topic. That, coupled with the fact that most folks are scientifically illiterate, and cannot possibly understand the science based agriculture of today, makes the job of County Agents very difficult. It is their job to educate their constituents in the basic scientific knowledge that they themselves take for granted. The job is much more difficult than it was when my father was an agent.
The complexity of all aspects of agricultural production, ranging from remote sensing technology, information management and use of computers, marketing of products, biotechnology, regulation, and capital management places today’s agents in quite a predicament. They cannot possibly hold all of that information at one time, and thus they must become as skilled at obtaining information as they are at passing it on to their communities.
Today, agents have to understand what farming practices are at risk in terms of freedom to operate because of objections from neighbors, officials, or activists and anti-agriculture groups. Cotton defoliants, odors from animal agriculture, dust from cultivation, and cormorants in catfish agriculture have been a few of the issues that have prevented freedom to operate in agricultural businesses.
A substantial percentage of the efforts of agents and their staff must be spent in communicating with people and organizations, particularly the farmers. The agricultural community, led by the agents, must act on the fact that freedom to operate agricultural businesses depends on how well the agents convince the urban majority at the local, state, and national level that what the farmers are doing is useful, appropriate, and safe. Agents and agricultural leaders must become at least as skilled and articulate as those who attack a particular practice.
Agents must be pro-active in detecting potential problems and recognizing warning signals early enough to attack problems before they are out of control. It’s much easier to solve problems in a low-key atmosphere early on than after the newspaper and media headlines shape the issue. Getting ahead of the problems makes the likelihood of success in freedom to operate issues much higher.
Anticipating the need for change, accepting the fact that it is inevitable, and learning how to manage it are crucial. If possible, it is best if the agent initiates change before they and their urban neighbors are in a polarized, high-profile debate. It is the responsibility of the agent to “sell” agriculture, its values, contributions, the conservation practices, and that fact that farmers are environmentalists. Agents must sell this concept to teachers and students in the local schools, to the Rotary and other civic clubs, and to the media.
We live in a competitive world, and the world of agriculture is certainly not exempt from that. For many reasons, all phases of agriculture at federal, state, university and county levels have not done well in competing for resources. Ag research, for instance, has been in decline for many years. Extension must compete successfully for more of the land grant university resources, and the agent is the best representative the university and agriculture could hope to have off-campus. Land grant universities are agriculture’s best resource, and the agent is the liaison between them and the constituents.
As the world of agriculture continues to change at a rapid pace, the job of the County Agent is vital to the agricultural communities. There is an overwhelming need for broad communication between the two, and it has to be the highest priority of the agents. Communication, communication, communication!