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Sarah Taber @SarahTaber_bww
, 25 tweets, 4 min read Read on Twitter
hoo boy

so ftr I'm either exactly the right person or exactly the wrong person to ask

you know those evil agricultural consultants who step in to pick up the slack where extension can't do stuff anymore? it me
spoiler alert, the conclusion to this thread is gonna be that trademark weird blend of tragic & liberating

And for non-ag readers, extension is basically a free consulting service that in the US is paid for by both federal & state gov'ts. It's free consulting.
In the course of food safety work, I've come across a lot of times when some organization (gov't, nonprofits, or very often a partner business like their own buyers) "helped" farmers with free training & materials.
I'm the mean old inspector who comes along a year or two later to find that the farmers have done absolutely dick with the free trainings & materials that other folks have so generously paid for.
And it's not one of those situations where the trainings & materials were orthagonal to what the farms needed. We're talking straight-up "we tailor-made logs to what the farms & buyers need and the farm never filled them out."
I haven't had a lot of direct experience with trainings delivered by extension. (They seem to have largely stayed out of the "pass an audit" area of produce food safety business so far.) But it's hard to imagine extension agents having drastically different results.
Farmers are often characterized as "risk-averse," w no further exploration of what that means. A lot of it has to do with "if you screw up you lose the land your house is on," which is a risk nobody should have to take for their business.
Another big contributor that nobody talks about is ... um ... a lot of farmers are functionally illiterate.

Sure they can read words off a page. But reading something, figuring out what it means for their own op, & making any needed extrapolations? Nope.
In that sense, not all that different from the US business owner class in general.

But it's something folks often forget is a factor for farms.
A lot of what extension does is write fact sheets on XYZ ag thing. I for one find them hella useful.

But how much good can those do for a functionally illiterate population?
The reality of ag is that farmers learn by watching their buddies try something first. The sustainable food movement loves to aestheticize this by breathlessly calling it "peer-to-peer learning!" and "community-based education!"
But when you're dealing with an entire region of farmers who can't get their shit together on something critical because there's nobody to copy off of, it stops being cute real fast.
What really happens IME is every county/region has 1 or 2 "big boys" w larger farms who're down to try new things before anybody else is.

This willingness to experiment is often chalked up to "well they have more money to play with."
Not wrong, but I can't help but notice the "big boys" also tend to be way more literate & situationally aware than the general level of farmers in their region. Almost like skill & professionalism might have made a difference in a farm's level of success?
So the "big boys" try it first, everybody else watches out of the corner of their eye, & if it goes well, *then* the whole neighborhood tries it.
If it's a new crop, then as soon as everybody's growing it the price drops. And then they fuss about "who could have seen this coming" and how the world is out to get them, as if we haven't all seen that mass adoption -> price drop cycle before.
Anyway, most farmers in the county are learning from local big boys, who are savvy enough to read extension docs/attend trainings and actually use the info.

And they're also savvy enough to self-teach themselves new things, period, not necessarily needing extension to do so.
Another farmer gripe that comes up a lot is, xtsn wants to teach the science & financials behind a thing bc YMMV and xtsn wants you to be able to calculate your own mileage, as it were.

Farmers want a list of exactly what products to use, where to buy, & what your ROI will be.
Extension can't do that, bc they're a government agency. When a government agency hands out lists of "buy X from Y," Y's competitors have a habit of getting really pissed & suing the government. Not to mention it's unethical.
Soooo the thing is a lot of folks get really hung up on "how are we going to save family farms."

I'm not convinced that they need saving. This may be a produce thing, but over here the ones who have their stuff together are doing fine.
I did a whole extended thinkpiece once on how family farms are not the end-all and be-all of amazingness that everyone thinks they are

it's episode 7 of the podcast and should be released in 2 weeks yayyyy
But tl;dr family farms are very much a project of colonialism. They're a tool of genocide that we've been trained to think is cute. They're not great at making food, preserving the environment, or building democracy, & they never have been.
I've got a sneaking suspicion the "Jeffersonian ideal" was less about building an ideal democratic society, and more about the powdered wig people keeping the poor whites busy & out of their fancy aristocrat business.
I don't want to diminish from the family farms I've worked with who *are* doing everything right. But I think it's important to honor the good work they're doing *by pointing out that it's unusual.*
And now we've gone really far off from the original question on extension

but my take is extension & ARS do great work, but there's not a lot they or any other institution can do about why family farms fail. Bc extension *is* a band-aid, on the stab wound of settler colonialism.
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