When I started work as the Clinton County Extension agriculture educator, I moved into an office already well stocked with books, fact sheets, binders and reference materials of all kinds.
File cabinets were full of the history of local agriculture, recommendations of experts long since retired and many years of accumulated knowledge. As the educational outreach arm of Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cooperative Extension has been delivering the latest in research-based agricultural knowledge to New York farmers for 100 years.
But as agricultural research has evolved, so has its delivery method. No longer does information filter down to producers via weighty manuals or annually produced pamphlets, today's agricultural information travels at the speed of light via the Internet.
With the advent of the new technologies, farmers have often been slow adopters, sometimes by virtue of the relative distance from information centers, other times because resistance to change in the past has been the norm. As farmers become larger and require more information to operate profitably, new ways of doing things have become more acceptable.
Gone are the days when a farmer would call the county extension agent for answers to routine questions; now they can surf the net from a smart phone right from the tractor seat and find all sorts of information, some good and some not so good.
One of the drawbacks of random web searches is the abundance of poor information. A recent development in Cooperative Extension outreach is the web-based resource eXtension.org. A partnership of 74 universities, eXtension.org is an interactive learning environment offering researched-based knowledge from experts at institutions across America.
Professional educators from all over the country join together in this online community to develop resource areas for their field. Farmers researching just about any topic can use eXtension.org to find good quality information, ask questions of extension experts, search newsletters from around the country and watch archived webinars.
One learning opportunity that has become increasingly popular with beginning farmers is the online webinar. Without leaving home, one can join a group of people from all over the state or country, and participate in a live or recorded presentation on topics of interest.
Webinars currently being offered by Cornell extension educators cover a wide range of topics from business planning and livestock production to marketing and financial record keeping. By allowing participants to interact in spite of the great distances between the farmer and the presenter, time and travel expenses are saved on both ends.
Another distance-learning method we frequently use in our office is video conferencing. With groups of local producers attending in multiple locations, experts from Cornell or beyond can communicate to several groups face to face over a video link.
While still requiring some travel, it offers a chance for personal interaction locally in addition to the long-distance connection. Speakers who would likely never visit our region can answer questions and have discussions on topics of specific interest to local farmers. Videoconferences offer a little of the personal touch that face-to-face interactions have to offer.
Once a personal connection is made, participants often find it easier to continue communication by email or telephone for future inquiries.
As technology evolves and agricultural education evolves with it, farmers will continue to have improved access to cutting-edge information. Whether it is new production methods, business-management tips or weather forecasts, more and more farmers will be using new technology to access and utilize information to be more successful.
For help navigating this new information frontier, the local extension office will still be here to offer personal assistance and the occasional fact sheet. For more information on programs currently being offered online, you can contact me at 561-7450 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Peter Hagar,, agriculture program educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County, 6064 Rt. 22, Plattsburgh, 12901. Call 561-7450.