Colgate professor holds UCCE up for example

Mar 3, 2009

Author Chris Henke used UC Cooperative Extension in Monterey County as an example of how agricultural science has helped the farm industry respond to problems, but that technology transfer can get stuck in a power struggle.

Henke explained the case study in The World's Fair: All Manner of Human Creativity on Display. From what I can tell, the blog is essentially an Oprah-style book club for high-brow, academic tomes and the posts typically are a transcribed Q&A session with an author. The book featured in the blog today is Cultivating Science, Harvesting Power: Science and Industrial Agriculture in California, authored by Henke, an assistant professor of sociology at Colgate University.

"The specific case that I describe [in the book] is an institution known as Cooperative Extension, which is a system of county-based agricultural experts employed by the University of California and most other states in the US," the author said in answer to one of blogger Benjamin Cohen's questions.

In his book, Henke said, he shows how the Cooperative Extension experts became enmeshed in the power structure of the farm industry, enabling its creation and helping it weather numerous crises throughout the twentieth century. However, Henke said it's commonly thought that experts in such situations are in the pocket of vested interests. He emphasized in his book, he said, ". . . the ambivalence on the part of both scientist and growers to work together on some of these problems."

I had to stop here and wonder, who is Henke calling "ambivalent"? This doesn't sound like the farm advisors and farmers that I know.

In answer to another question, the author describes a case study in his book. (I'll use bullet points to present Henke's main points.):

  • The EPA designated US agriculture the largest non-point source of water pollution in the country
  • Water running off farm fields or seeping into groundwater can carry pesticides and fertilizers
  • This is especially true in the Salinas Valley, where chemical inputs are used in heavy doses
  • Several areas in the county have drinking water with unsafe levels of nitrate, a key ingredient in fertilizer
  • Many suspect that nitrates have made their way into the water supply from farm fields
  • UCCE scientists addressed the problem.
  • Experiments showed that reduced fertilizer use had no impact on crop yields
  • Growers tended not to trust these results - and believed using less fertilizer was too risky

Henke said he developed the concept "ecology of power" to analyze how power structures are created that block the implementation of science.

"You can have all the knowledge in the world, but if you can't use it, it won't make you powerful. What I show is that the kind of power that growers or agricultural scientists can be said to have is literally grounded in the interaction of farming places and the ways that people farm there," Henke was quoted in the text.

Not light reading.

By Jeannette E. Warnert
Author - Communications Specialist

Attached Images:

The cover of Hemke's book.