BY STAN BLADE
I was recently asked how COVID-19 has influenced “extension delivery,” the transfer of agricultural knowledge to farmers. The question prompted a surge of thinking about what has happened during the 2020 pandemic and how this process has changed over the years.
When I was a candidate for dean, I was asked to conduct a public lecture about my vision for the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences (ALES). I shared my recollection of making the link between agriculture and science for the first time. It happened when I was a farm kid and my parents took me to the University of Alberta Research Farm for a Faculty of Agriculture research open house. A live sheep with six legs also made a big impression, but that is a story for another time.
What is the best way to inform potential users of research results? In 1915, when our first dean, Ernest Alberta Howes spoke with farmers, they predominantly believed their experience would lead to improvements in how they ran their operations. Dean Howes accepted this approach but believed research could improve crop and livestock practices. Over the next few decades the faculty connected with farmers to identify issues that were addressed by research and extension.
This tradition continues today in the Banff Pork Seminar, the Western Canadian Dairy Seminar and other initiatives. Western Canada has gone through a progression of extension models over the decades. Provincial governments placed district agriculturalists and home economists in communities to act as information sources for generations of farm families.
These remarkable people were valued members of the districts they served. They addressed questions on soil management, crop variety choice, home canning and everything else under the sun. Regional extension specialists eventually focused on specific topics.
Changes in government policy and funding reductions led to the establishment of Ag-Info Centre to provide information to farmers across the province. Simultaneously, farmers found value in hiring private consultants to provide advice on key issues such as soil fertility and pest management. Sometimes this service came as part of their purchase package with input suppliers.
The nature of this work has changed over time. Once referred to as “extension,” the movement of information from scientist to farmer is now generally referred to as “knowledge translation and transfer” (KTT). This definition of KTT comes from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs: “the transformation of knowledge into use through synthesis, exchange, dissemination, dialogue, collaboration and brokering among researchers and research users.” This boring definition does incorporate an amazing list of ways in which this process happens.
Best agricultural practices are exchanged in many forums. These include field days held at research stations, on-farm visits, research conferences, radio broadcasts, newspaper columns, crop clubs, field schools, 4-H activities, commodity group events, private sector seminars, trade shows and lectures at universities and colleges. Of course, in the last two decades we have benefitted from interactions on the internet on web pages, discussion forums, marketing applications and on platforms such as Twitter. There is also still a great deal of farmer experience exchanged at coffee shops.
This is also a global issue. I serve on the board of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), which works across sub-Saharan Africa. The institute just published an important paper on the science of scaling. It addresses how to take a research breakthrough or a successful pilot phase demonstration and scale it up so that millions of African smallholder farmers may benefit.
Sometimes we need to adapt due to unique circumstances. In April 2020, our faculty quickly organized a virtual certificate course entitled COVID-19 and the Economics of World Food and Agriculture. Its 1,000-plus registrants hailed from Canada and 50 other countries. Another example is the in-person field day hosted by Alberta Barley and Alberta Beef Producers in Lacombe in July 2020. It demonstrated such events are workable while practicing appropriate social distancing.
As an interim member of the new Results Driven Agriculture Research (RDAR) board, I have heard more than 50 agricultural groups representing thousands of farmers discuss their views on the establishment of RDAR priorities. KTT remains near the top of the list for further investment. We all know we can (and must) create more value by increasing the two-way interaction between scientists and the farmers who put their research to use.
Stan Blade, PhD, is dean of the Faculty of Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Alberta.