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Agricultural extension — old and new versions

Progress Communications have brought extension into the modern age,
but a retired DHE wonders if there’s something missing

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Many remember the glory days of Alberta Agriculture’s extension services, but it’s been nearly two decades since the province moved away from a model that had served the fledgling province well for years. By the mid-1990s, generalists — in the form of the district agriculturist (DA) and the district home economist (DHE) — had outlived their shelf life. The shift from mixed farming to specialization required specialized support.

“A century ago, extension services were about how to provide food,” says Barb Shackel-Hardman, head of the Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development (ARD) Extension Branch. Today, we have more specialized business as well as new opportunities such as ag tourism and local food production to promote and educate.”

There are now 13 ARD field offices in Alberta, with two in the Peace. Field office administrators can assist with farm fuel program renewals, premise ID numbers and traceability and facilitate access to specialists or information, says Shackel-Hardman.

This past winter, ARD launched a series of webinars — one-hour web-based seminars hosted by resident experts every Wednesday afternoon from Feb. 22 to April 11. “Even though the live events are over you still have the chance to participate on your own time,” says Shackel-Hardman. “Best of all it is free and you can do it all from the comfort of your home.”

In addition to the regular series, she says there have been other webinars on specific topics such as local market initiatives, commodity forecasts, etc.

Specialists are still available by dialling 310-FARM through the Ag Info Centre, which will funnel specific requests to appropriate resources.

Mixed feelings

A retired district home economist wonders whether some of the changes have gone too far. Born and raised near Provost, a young Susan Meyer thought the local district home economist was the most sophisticated and organized woman she knew. Meyer aspired to “be just like her” when she grew up. Eventually, she did become a DHE herself… sans the sophisticated part, but she was organized, Meyer says.

After earning a bachelor of science in home economics, a degree no longer offered, Meyer ultimately took the position of regional home economist in Fairview overseeing a staff of nine there and in Grande Prairie. After marrying Arnie, who ran a saskatoon orchard just outside of Grande Prairie, Meyer asked for a demotion to your regular garden-variety DHE. When the tide turned for ARD’s extension services in the mid-’90s, she accepted a position as organization development specialist until her retirement in 2008.

One of the things Meyer misses is the informal nature of the job back in her heyday.

“The local MLA would often pop into the regional ag office to talk about what’s new and, more importantly, he would listen to the DAs, the DHEs and the rest of the staff.”

Somewhere along the way, says Meyer, those ad hoc exchanges of information have been lost. “There’s been a shift in politics such that the estrangement between management and the union filtered through to politicians and the bureaucrats.”

The fleet of DAs and DHEs were in the trenches, with access to the real front-line workers — the farmers, says Meyer. They knew what was going on, what to be aware of, when a program might not be making sense and would talk about that with the MLA over the counter of the district office. Now, says Meyer, there’s no trust in either direction.

Lower profile

She acknowledges the speed and efficiency of electronic communications such as webinars. Yet Meyer says even today, many people continue to tell her how much they enjoyed that face of ARD in rural communities.

The profile of the department seemed much larger then that it is now. DAs usually had a column in the local newspaper and the DHE might be found on the radio waves or in the classroom.

“Farmers might ask the DA how much fertilizer they need and now this information comes from the manufacturer,” says Meyer. “If you’re a cynic you might question the authenticity of information coming from a person who’s selling the stuff telling us how much to use.”

Meyer says that while the established businesses in agriculture can be well served by this new model of extension services, smaller operations and new entrants are at risk of falling through the cracks.

“The people who rely on the the farmers’ markets to sell their product, the locavores who are trying to advance the concept — I believe if we are ever going to have a vibrant economy in rural areas, we still need people doing stuff at each level,” she says.

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