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The Future of Cooperative Extension | #education | #technology | #training | #hacking | #aihp


The pest control industry has relied on the Cooperative Extension Service for technician training, pest identification services, and a variety of other important education and research offerings for many years.

As the industry has evolved, however, and the era of digital communication has changed the way PMPs and the public consume information, Cooperative Extension has played a less visible role in recent years. As a result, some have wondered about the future of the Cooperative Extension Service, which will celebrate its 108th anniversary this year.

THE EARLY YEARS. “The Cooperative Extension Service system got its start in 1862 when Congress passed the Morrill Act, which provided for a university in each state to provide education to citizens in agricultural and mechanical fields,” according to A Brief History of Extension on The Ohio State University Extension website.

These colleges are commonly referred to as “land-grant universities” and they include Purdue University, the cradle of the structural pest control industry thanks to the leadership and vision of industry pioneer J.J. Davis.

“Congress soon realized that to be effective, the educational function of land-grant universities needed to be supplemented with research capabilities,” the OSU website states. “The Hatch Act was passed in 1887 to establish research farms where universities could conduct research into agricultural, mechanical and related problems faced by rural citizens.”

Three years later, several Historically Black Colleges and Universities were added to the land-grant university system, further expanding the scope of the program.

In 1914, Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act, which established the Cooperative Extension Service, a state-by-state network of educators who extended university knowledge to people throughout the United States, taking the university to the people.

The Cooperative Extension System (CES) was eventually absorbed into the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture to provide educational support and research-based information to its audiences, including PMPs and other key industry stakeholders.

While largely a rural initiative, the Cooperative Extension System took on increased importance for the structural pest control industry in the post-World War II era when pesticides developed during the conflict were deployed to American farmers, dramatically increasing farm production before eventually reaching the structural pest control industry in the form of new formulations for use in and around residential and commercial structures.

© credit | UF IfAS

Faith Oi

“Over the last century, extension has adapted to changing times and landscapes. Fewer than two percent of Americans farm for a living today, and only 17 percent of Americans now live in rural areas,” according to the National Institute of Food and Agriculture website (nifa.usda.gov.). “Yet, the extension service still plays a significant role in American life – rural, urban, and suburban.”

Part of that role is educating the structural pest control industry and the customers it serves. Unfortunately, that is easier said than done in an era of declining financial support, rapidly changing market conditions, and dramatic advancements in digital communication.

CAUSE FOR CONCERN? An industry educator on the front lines of the debate about the future of cooperative extension is Faith Oi, extension associate professor of urban entomology at the University of Florida.

She says the industry could use help in promoting the benefits of the Extension Service at both the PMP and university levels if the service is to remain relevant in the coming years.

“The concept of extension is difficult to explain even within university communities,” she observes. “For this reason, we have to demonstrate impacts – the return on investment from a university perspective – just as (pest control) companies must have ROI for their operating and strategic investment decisions.”

If university educators with the help of PMPs aren’t able to make this case, the consequences could be dire. “My greatest fear is that university positions will not be refilled with people who have a passion for the industry,” she says.

Educators like Oi, who have dedicated the better part of their careers to the structural pest control industry, have a passion to serve, despite the administrative challenges of the job.

“Those of us with Extension appointments spend an inordinate amount of time on annual reports to justify Extension programs that support the industry,” she observes. “Reporting is about numbers. The valuation of research is commonly calculated by counting publications and grants received. The valuation of Extension is more difficult because it includes human factors” (i.e., enhancing a PMP’s knowledge, changing a technician’s behavior, etc.).

“Regardless of reporting requirements, most of us in Extension do what we do because this is our contribution to helping others,” she says. “Over time, I think most of us develop friendships and when a friend calls with a question, we help, and requests for help run both ways.

“How do you put a number on a friendship?” she asks.

In addition, she says, “The time needed for reporting is also time away from directly helping the industry,” another common frustration expressed by Extension personnel.

Allocation of existing resources is particularly concerning when one considers the slow, but steady decline of extension personnel devoted to the pest control industry. “Historically, Extension supported agricultural initiatives, including horticulture,” Oi says, “but structural pest management typically falls outside these subject areas,” meaning the needs of the industry aren’t likely being fully met.

Universities also have been slow to adapt to industry work force needs. “Universities are stable by design, which also makes them inflexible to a degree,” Oi says. “The pest control industry is transdisciplinary. Students need ‘soft skills’ (i.e., teamwork, communication), a basic understanding of business, regulations, customer service.” As a result, “creating programs (i.e., new majors, certificate programs, etc.) to keep up with industry needs can be a challenge, but it’s not impossible.

“Trying to find journals that publish transdisciplinary results also is challenging,” Oi adds. The scientific journals Extension personnel typically publish in are not as high impact as Science or Nature, “which puts us at a professional disadvantage with university systems that place a premium on high-impact journals,” she says, presenting a different set of challenges. However, she is confident the next generation of university educators will find solutions to these challenges.

Oi also points out that anyone who has family care responsibilities and an Extension appointment will experience extra challenges because irregular hours are the norm, presenting recruitment and retention challenges for the Cooperative Extension System. She says, even with a supportive husband (David Oi, another urban entomologist): “I still remember asking my son Collin what he wanted for Christmas when he was 10 and he asked me to find another job because the travel kept me from home. He also gave me suggestions on smartphones so I could clear my inbox when I was at the airport. A dagger to the heart.”

THE FUTURE. While the Cooperative Extension Service faces numerous challenges, the pest control industry could improve its standing through a broad-based PR effort promoting the long-term benefits of extension service offerings that have played such a critical role in the advancement of the pest control industry.

“The establishment of faculty positions, including extension positions, is the long-term solution to the decline (in urban entomologists),” according to Michael Rust, distinguished professor of the graduate division, University of California, Riverside.

“A state-funded faculty member is a 30-year commitment. I know the industry supports legislative days to impact laws and regulations. Possibly concerted lobbying efforts at the state and federal levels can impact the programmatic decisions being made at the University level,” he says.

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