Linking Research and Extension to Meet the Needs of Small and Mid-Size Family FarmersDaniel E. Kugler USDA-Cooperative State Research,
Education, and Extension Service
Farmers in the future will operate in a new world where the only certainty is continued uncertainty, risk and change all occurring at an accelerated pace.
The USDA Economic Research Service defines small farms as those which produce less than $50,000 in agricultural products per year. According to this definition, there are 1.4 million small farms in the United States. These small farms constitute 73 percent of all farms, less than 10 percent of the farm sales, and roughly 31 percent of farm acreage. On a per-farmer basis, this means that nearly three-fourths of the farm customer base for land-grant research and extension knowledge is small farms. This constituency is considerable, and their needs must be met.
The role of the land-grant institution in serving the small farm constituency is that of a unique system poised for creative and strategic responses to the challenges of change. The land-grant system helps build operations into successful and profitable businesses, which, in turn,
contribute to the well-being of families and communities. The land-grant system can do this in several ways, mainly through education programs, both formal and nonformal. We need educational programs which focus on strategic thinking and decisionmaking processes to help with risk management and skills where information and choices abound.
We need educational programs in conservation for small farms. With small farms occupying nearly one-third of the agricultural land base, there is an important role in facilitating evaluation of alternative conservation technologies and management practices. This helps to balance conservation with other production and business objectives.
There are numerous educational program needs for helping small scale animal farmers, i.e., those engaged in dairy, cattle, hog, poultry, agriculture, and other operations. Animal agriculture needs assistance to improve operations, develop new products, open new markets, reduce loss to pests and
diseases, and meet sanitary and environmental requirements while remaining profitable.
The ultimate role of the Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service (CSREES) and the land-grant system is to help small farm operators understand where their farm operations are relative to the potential of their resource base. We can assist small farm operators understand, evaluate, and select options as they face choices and change.
There are other things which CSREES and the land grant system can do. We know that knowledge is not size-neutral. The acquisition cost of knowledge is relatively constant regardless of farm size. However, the value of knowledge can be scale sensitive and may require a certain size of operation for successful and profitable adoption. This may be one of the reasons small-scale operators are less likely to adopt certain practices, such as computerized bookkeeping, on-line marketing, and integrated pest management, than large farms. To be size-neutral, we need to offer programs targeted to meet the needs of small farms as well as those of larger farms.
We need to do a better job of consulting with small and mid-scale farm operators about their needs. This could be done through representation on research and extension advisory committees. We may go beyond this to "reinvent" a long-time extension tool, namely informal consult-ing, where time is spent listening to the needs of small farm operators in their barns, coffee shops, and fields.
The CSREES and land-grant system function as a partnership and that partnership extends to other agencies and organizations. As Under Secretary Jill Long Thompson said this morning, we must work with local and state agencies, private interests, universities, and others. We need to use extension's strengths to bring people together to build sustaining programs in support of their industries and communities.
Although the breadth of the CSREES and land-grant system and its partnerships is pervasive, it takes active small farm programs at all our institutions to reach 1.4 million small farmers. This calls the 1862, the 1890 and the newest 1994 (Native American) land-grant colleges and universities into a proactive role for small farm programs linking research and extension to meet the needs of a particular audience.
Finally, in a reflection from CSREES Administrator Bob Robinson, maybe we ought to do more on-farm research. This is also a long-time extension tool that encourages innovation, problem-solving, and decisionmaking. More importantly, it puts the results directly before other farmers. In closing, let it simply be said that the CSREES and the land-grant system is poised to serve the 1.4 million small farms in this country. It is your actions and your influence that will drive that system to be responsive to research and extension needs of those small farms.
Return to Table of Contents
Return to Title Page