This piece was originally posted on Agri-Pulse.
By Rikin Gandhi
Editor's Note: Agri-Pulse and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs are teaming up to host a monthly column to explore how the US agriculture and food sector can maintain its competitive edge and advance food security in an increasingly integrated and dynamic world.
Farming has always been a tough business and the challenges are only increasing. Weather is more extreme than ever before, arable land is reducing, consumer preferences are rapidly changing, trade policies are more contentious, and rural communities are urbanizing and aging. These issues face farmers around the globe. At the same time, there are opportunities in this turmoil. Increasing demand for foods that are local, sustainable, and nutritious provide new opportunities for US and global agriculture. Tapping into this rising demand will be critical for smallholder farmers in particular. Working on less than 5 acres, they represent more than 90-percent of the 570 million farms that exist globally.
Many farmers rely on their own intuition and their close family and neighbors to navigate these challenges. For over a hundred years, agricultural extension has recruited experts, or extension agents, to meet with farmers where they are and provide advice to help them achieve what they want to become. From building trust to translating the latest research, government and university extension agents from the American Midwest to the Indian Gangetic Plain have boosted farmer productivity around the world. Companies often provide extension alongside their sales and marketing of inputs to educate those they are sourcing from to meet the quality and volume needs of their supply chains. From posters and radio shows to more sophisticated mobile apps and sensors that provide site-specific advice, technology is changing the way these public and private reach even the most remote smallholder farms.
All of this comes at a price though and many extension providers have begun to question the returns to these investments. Many farmers also find themselves inundated with data and contradictory sources of information to sort through. Extension agents have realized that they cannot be instructors for every issue and often now serve as brokers who triage issues and determine whether they can respond to them or if they might need to call on someone else.