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Reinventing Cooperative Extension: Partner with Local Public Libraries

I recently sent a version of this blog to some food-and-farm colleagues as a possible idea for “big picture” system change, without reinventing the wheel. This is basically a re-purposing of two U.S. institutions, to the benefit of both and for the benefit of all Americans—rural, urban, suburban, including non-humans (soil, water, air, plants, animals, etc.). 

The initial benefit is economies of scale and making the most of presently reduced resources. The medium-term and long-term benefits are numerous, including:

—tap into existing urban-rural coalitions across individual states
—take agri-business and “the market” out of Extension (not to mention the entire food & farm system)
—restore farming to a regenerative practice rather than an extractive practice
—support urban & suburban people’s desire to re-connect with the weather, food production, etc.
—support basic needs across ALL communities—rural, urban, suburban—vis-a-vis “clean air and water, healthy food, adequate housing, quality health care, and basic economic security” (John Ikerd, A Green New Deal for Farm & Food Policy, 2019). I would also add communications & transportation connectivity.
—Green New Deal (long-term funding)

Here’s what I sent to my national colleagues (edited for clarity and universal applicability).

To: Food-and-farm colleagues in U.S.
Subject: Reinventing our national Extension system

Here’s an idea for any U.S. food-and-farm organization looking for a national project with maximum impact at the local level.

First, an anecdote from my early days in the Illinois food & farm movement (approx. 2007), about a Chicago-area colleague who helped me see the Cooperative Extension system differently.

ANECDOTE ABOUT EXTENSION as a national asset ripe for re-invention in terms of community-based regeneration

Around 2007, the popularity of farmers markets in Illinois began to extend into WINTER farmers markets. There was one farmer organization (based in SW Wisconsin) that was promoting winter markets in northeast Illinois and Chicago area. They were lucky to find a tireless local promoter in Robin S., who I came to call “Queen of the winter markets”.

For a variety of reasons—age, life experience, commitment to social justice, urban women wanting to know more about rural farm issues, etc.—Robin and I became close colleagues. Her mission has always been to support farmers. My mission has always been real democracy and system design that supports all farmers & eaters.

When Robin and I met, I was already working on the Illinois Local Food, Farms, & Jobs initiative (2-year task force to write an Illinois food plan & create an Illinois food policy council). I must have mentioned “Extension” numerous times in our early conversations because at some point Robin said, “What’s Extension?”

From this time distance, I don’t remember exactly how I described Extension—something about local (community-based), something about sharing applied knowledge in real time, something about it being a national network, a foundational institution of communities including suburban and urban. (At the time of this conversation, Cook County—home to Chicago & 125 suburbs–had ten Extension offices.)

Whatever I said, I’ll never forget Robin’s reaction to my description of Extension.
She said, “It sounds like a library.”
A free, local, public place to access food & farm knowledge, with branches all over the country.

From that moment on, I have borrowed Robin’s term—in speeches, in blogposts, etc. The Extension system functions—or should function—as a public library of applied knowledge, based in every community.

IDENTIFYING A NATIONAL ORGANIZATION as the “Andrew Carnegie” of applied libraries for community food projects?

In an earlier conversation over COMFOOD (the largest and oldest food-and-farm listserv in North America), we had been discussing “community food projects” —a common and codified term for locally controlled initiatives designed to address multiple food-and-farm problems.  I realized then that this might be describing a re-purposing of the “Cooperative Extension” service that was initiated by Abraham Lincoln for farmers (1862) and extended to the needs of “farm wives” in the early 1900s.

As most of us know (in the food-and-farm justice world), somewhere along the way Extension got co-opted by agri-business interests (facilitated by American Farm Bureau and various other financial interests). Most of us also know that currently, in 2019, there are a number of initiatives to re-imagine Extension. So far as I know, none of them have talked about merging with public libraries, re-writing the original Morrill Act (which pre-dates the U.S. public library systems).  (Nor do any of them, so far as I know, discuss reviewing the land grants that created the land grant universities on stolen American Indian land.)

This may seem way more of a project than most organizations are looking for, but I think the message of our times is to be bold, think big, think structurally—especially foundationally—literally from the ground up.

It would be great if some well-funded national food-and-farm organization could be the “Andrew Carnegie” of “applied libraries for community food & farm projects”. Maybe a way to infuse our local libraries with new $$ (federal) and new purpose is to combine them with Extension. Many Extension offices were joined at the hip to Farm Bureau offices. That was rightly declared illegal some decades ago. Perhaps a productive pilot project would be for some existing public library to partner with a local Extension office, which can also be aligned with a local “climate action plan” that addresses regenerative land uses and regenerative technologies.

I hope this is useful. I’m happy to share additional thoughts about such a merging of missions. Here in Evanston, IL and the Chicago area this is already happening on a programmatic level. I believe it could be extended organizationally and financially.

NOTE: In my private email to colleagues I identified Robin S. in full. I would be happy to include Robin’s full name in this public post (to give her full credit), but I have not had a chance to contact her to get her permission.