What Agricultural Extension Services’ History Can Teach Us about Democratizing Technology

Could millions of American workers could take full advantage of the emerging tech that’s going to dominate our economy in the next 20 years? That might sound crazy to you. But this isn’t the first time we’ve had to figure out how to make tech accessible to a daunting number of people. US agriculture went through an extraordinary transformation from the mid-19th to the early 20th century, producing one of the biggest explosions in productivity that the world had ever seen. To make it happen, farmers throughout the US had to adopt and master one wave of technological & process change after another. And that couldn’t have happened without several institutions, culminating in Agricultural Extension Services. To bring about the same kind of radical transformation, we can learn a thing or two from their experience.

Agriculture Extension Services were the third wave of institutions intended to bring the agricultural technological revolution of automation and mechanization to millions of American farmers. The 1862 Morrill Act allowed states to use the funds from selling public lands to establish “land-grant colleges” to teach agricultural and mechanical arts. Although a good start, not enough farmers could afford to take the time to go to college. So in 1877, the Hatch Act gave states the ability to create agricultural experimentation stations to conduct agricultural research and share that knowledge with students and farmers. But the knowledge still wasn’t reaching enough people. So in 1914 the Smith-Lever Act helped land-grant colleges and the USDA cooperate to make sure the knowledge/tech coming out of experimental research stations got into the hands of farmers.

There are 3 lessons we can learn from the successes of Agricultural Extension Services:

1) Scale
Agricultural Extension Services operated on a scale that’s hard to fathom today. Extension services placed at least one staff member in virtually every county in the US. That meant that they could reach farmers where they were, year-round. They often help their communities create clubs and a whole range of social groups, gatherings, etc. that provided multiple opportunities for men, women, and children to learn about the latest agricultural tech in a safe environment, surrounded by their friends. If you had questions, it was easy to get answers — and good extension services staff made sure to build relationships throughout the community so asking questions wasn’t intimidating. Given that robotics, AI, augmented and virtual reality, digital fabrication, etc. are going to become as central to our economy as agriculture was in the past, there’s no reason we couldn’t provide support on a similar scale.

2) Bottom up Feedback Loops
Extension Services staff spent a lot of time thinking about how to break down the latest research in the fields of biology, chemistry, soil science, etc. so it was accessible to farmers who usually had at best a high school education. But they also served as a feedback loop. Agriculture experimental stations wouldn’t do much good if they didn’t understand the problems farmers were currently facing. Extension services staff played a critical role in getting that information and understanding research stations and colleges and helping ensure it would shape the next round of research.

3) Fostering Civic Engagement
Finally, many Extension Service agents used their work to push for an approach that went beyond just training farmers in technical skills. They understood that for farming to thrive, conversations couldn’t stop at the right technique for planting seeds; they needed to include civic problems such as soil erosion and the structure of commodity prices.

Take the example of Louisiana State University’s Mary Mims, who I discussed in a previous post. Mims, who had a national reputation of one of the best speakers of our era, advocated for a vision of what she called the “community organizing method,” which scholar and organizer Harry C Boyte argues was grounded in building community power.

Mims, like others in cooperative extension (home economics, 4-H and other areas) drew on the Jane Addams Hull House tradition. She was also inspired by folk schools in Denmark. These had a focus on agency, building the civic power of students, families, and larger communities. They were “schools for life,” grounded in the experiences and life of common people not elites, with parallels to the “New School” (Escuela Nueva) movement in Latin America, begun in Columbia, which we’ve discussed before….

In Mims view, professionals of any kind should be a “leaven” for community self-organization. “So-called ‘social workers’ cannot hammer a community into shape,” she argued in her book, The Awakening Community. “If a community grows, it must do so from the inside.”

And Mims wasn’t alone. Boyte notes that

In the US, the United States Department of Agriculture and land grant colleges from 1937 to 1942 involved more than three million people in rural America in community discussions about the future of rural life, taking up issues that ranged from commodity prices and soil erosion to the future of democracy in America.

Agricultural Extension Services had plenty of problems, and there’s now extensive research on the ways in which they often helped reproduce racial, gender, and other inequalities. But there are still a lot of valuable lessons to be learned. If we could bring about these kind of remarkable, far thinking changes in late 19th-century and early 20th century agriculture, there’s no reason we can’t do the same for robots and other emerging technology today.

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