MANHATTAN, Kan. – Seven members of an Australian delegation made a stop in Kansas recently during a trip to study the United States’ cooperative extension system, which is just weeks from marking its 100th year of serving citizens.
The visitors – mostly representing their country’s grain industry – hope to bolster their own extension network, with particular emphasis on using distance education and newer technology to provide day-to-day information that Australians want.
“We are an eXtension project team, and we are piloting the American eXtension model in Australia,” said Gavin Beever, an agricultural consultant with the group. “We are testing the applicability of the American eXtension model to the Australian grains industry.”
eXtension is an interactive website that brings together many of the resources of the United States’ Cooperative Extension System. Its uniqueness is in its use of technology that allows experts across the world to interact with citizens anywhere. Experts are easily found by subject matter area, known as a ‘Community of Practice.’
Dan Cotton, the director of integrated technology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and former executive director of the national eXtension project, accompanied the group on the Kansas trip – which included stops at Kansas State University’s International Grains Program, and the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center.
“From their perspective, they are so interested in the United States,” Cotton said. “Australia is a major ally of the United States, and they are very interested in how we approach our agriculture, how we approach extension. Throughout this trip they are amazed at what they’re watching, and the research we are doing.”
“Our growers are producing many of the same crops, have all the same needs that your growers do, and are using many of the same technologies,” said Kyle Thoms, the senior manager of products and services for the Australian Grains Products and Development Corporation.
“So we are going to come away from this trip with a lot of information about how those technologies can best be utilized by researchers to communicate with end users.”
Thoms noted that there are just 56 publicly-funded extension professionals to serve the entire Australian grain industry. By comparison, Kansas alone has agricultural extension agents with grain or livestock expertise in most of its 105 counties, plus many more specialists at the university’s main campus in Manhattan.
That’s a primary reason why the Australian contingent sees their country as providing less face-to-face contact with citizens, and greater use of technology to provide information.
“It’s getting better at being in touch with the audience, identifying their needs, collaboratively solving problems, working with the private sector,” said Richard Vines, a knowledge management specialist with the Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DPI). “It’s a little different in Australia. We have a strong private sector component, so we are trying to get objective science-based information to the end-users, the citizens, but sometimes through the private sector itself.”
“Our visit to the United States has really helped us to think through how we might tackle that. At the moment, we only have some pilot trials of what the eXtension initiative calls collaborate learning networks where experts and citizens/farmers engage with those experts to solve problems. We’re piloting that. We’re coming here to explore how do you do that on a larger scale; how do you do that nationally; and can you do that nationally?”
Vines’ colleague at the DPI, soil development officer Luke Beange, added: “There’s that whole need, as research rolls through, we need to get that information to farmers. If we can’t do that face-to-face anymore, and if using the eXtension platform allows us to get more information out to the farmers, then so much the better.”
The U.S. Cooperative Extension Service was established by the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 to inform citizens about current developments in agriculture, home economics, public policy, leadership, 4-H, economic development and more. Extension is tied to the U.S. network of land grant universities; in 1863, Kansas State University is believed to be the first land grant to open after the Morrill Act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1862.
This May, Kansas is joining other states in celebrating the 100th year of the Smith-Lever Act.
The Australians’ visit “has been a fantastic opportunity for us to meet with extension professionals and learn about how communication is happening with the farmers over here,” said Katherine Hollaway, a project leader for the group’s eXtension pilot tests. “This visit is very much about trying to do things differently. For us, we need to have a better reach with our work. We’ve started, but it’s time to up that level and work a bit harder and more efficiently.”
More information about the 100th anniversary celebration of the Cooperative Extension Service is available at Cooperative Extension Celebrating 100 Years.