Demonstrations remain the core of extension programs

Linda Benedict, Bogren, Richard C.  |  6/6/2014 4:24:17 AM

Rick Bogren

For more than 100 years agricultural agents have brought research results to Louisiana farmers through demonstration programs.

Seaman Knapp, a pioneer of the extension philosophy in the late 1800s and early 1900s in Louisiana and Texas, said, “Demonstration is more effective than preaching.”

J.A. Evans was named Louisiana’s first state agent for farm demonstration work in 1906. By 1909, he had organized demonstration farms in 44 parishes.

Demonstration programs got a boost in 1914 when Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act and established the Cooperative Extension Service through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The act was passed “to aid in diffusing among the people of the U.S. useful and practical information on subjects relating to agriculture, home economics and rural energy, and encourage application of same.”

Over the years demonstration programs evolved as the state’s agriculture became more mechanized, adopted new management practices, embraced new plant varieties and hybrids, and moved through the chemical age of fertilizers and a host of pesticides.

Now, the age of computers, digital photography, smart phones and global positioning systems have become the tools agents and specialists apply to their demonstration projects.

During the past 20 years, crop specialists have developed and refined the concept of verification trials that put research recommendations under scrutiny in farmers’ fields.

Verification programs show farmers that small-plot research could be taken to the field and applied to farming operations, said LSU AgCenter soybean specialist Ronnie Levy. It demonstrates how the research recommendations can be applied to complete fields.

“The results show increases in production and profitability, which are part of management decisions,” Levy said. “We’ve seen how following these practices has led to increases compared to parish averages and state averages.”

Verification fields require a significant time commitment that includes weekly field visits by the specialist, the agent and the grower.

“Year after year, the program resulted in higher yields and increased profitability for the participants,” Levy said.

The current soybean program focuses on variety trials in producers’ fields to complement those on research stations. The fields are geographically dispersed, Levy said, and use the newest and highest-performing varieties provided by seed companies. They cover most maturity groups and most areas of the state.

“We help plant and harvest,” Levy said of the AgCenter’s role in the on-farm trials that include 17 to 20 varieties and are used to supplement research data from replicated trials on seven research stations.

“Yield stability is what we hope to find in varieties for Louisiana,” he said. “We learn a lot about disease susceptibility and environmental issues that affect each variety’s performance. The result is better information on soybean varieties.”

Ultimately, the extension specialists want to help producers find the best products and practices that can help them be profitable.

“The No. 1 thing we would hear from farmers is ‘it won’t work on my farm,’” said LSU AgCenter rice specialist Johnny Saichuk.

The rice verification program, however, has helped dissuade this reluctance. Funded by the Louisiana Rice Research Board since the program began, Saichuk has had to turn away interested growers every year.

The verification program includes several components, Saichuk said. 
 
• It increases grower confidence in research recommendations.
• It increases confidence of agents and specialists. “Sometimes we needed to be convinced the recommendations were good,” Saichuk said.
• It develops an economic data base reflecting the cost of production.
An important aspect of extension demonstrations, Saichuk said, is helping growers learn. “We’re not consultants,” he said. “We’re teachers.”

Rick Bogren is a professor and science writer in LSU AgCenter Communications.

(This article was published in the spring 2014 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

Watch the 50-sec video, Agents of Change: Demonstration Farming

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