Friday, November 30, 2012

University extension goes to town

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported a few days ago (November 26, 2012) on Cooperative Extension Service's newfound focus on the "urban, urbane."  Scott Carlson, dateline Denver, writes of "a new and evolving role for the 98-year-old program, a prominent part of the nation's land-grant institutions, designed to bring research out to communities for practical use.  As Americans have moved off farms and into cities, the extension service has had to follow them there--both to fulfill a mission to serve the public and to remain relevant in the eyes of policy makers, who hold the purse strings."  This push for relevance, Carlson reports, has extension programs focusing "more on he needs of city folk--with, for example, programs in gang prevention, youth education, and economic development in lower-income communities."

Cooperative extension has long been funded by a combination of federal (USDA), state, and county monies.  In Colorado, a third of extension funding is through the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, while counties supply more than 40% of the program's funding.  Because Colorado's legislature is predominantly metropolitan, comments Louis Swanson of Colorado State,  Cooperative Extension must be "relevant to the metropolitan sector" or "increasingly be marginal in terms of state allocations."

So, while rural youth still raise animals through 4-H, a youth-development branch of cooperative extension,  urban youth might "build rockets or robots."  In response to urban challenges such as obesity, diabetes and crime, extension programs in a variety of states, from North Carolina to Michigan, have implemented nutrition education and anti-gang programs.

Carlson's story insists that "farming is not left out," but the farming on which he focuses is urban agriculture, with examples from Michigan and Colorado.  The mayor of Denver, Michael Hancock, has set the goal of having urban farms supplying 10% of Denver's food.  Blake Angelo, an extension agent working in Denver, notes evidence that "small city farms can beautify and strengthen urban communities" where "consumers and high-end restaurants ... clamor[] for unusual, local produce."

While a third of Americans were farmers at the turn of the 20th century, just one percent farm today.  Angelo asserts that urban farms are "a valuable test ground" for those who may become the next generation of farmers.  Angelo's comment helpfully links this urban farming craze with larger farms, which are typically only accommodated in more rural places.  The farmers "get their start in urban environments where they can test the realities of these difficult and risky busnesses, and they are able to scale up or out."

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